Married for 12 years, Lisa and Cliff were enjoying a fun date night out. Back at home, Cliff wanted to be physically intimate. Lisa, usually game, was exhausted and told Cliff that sex wasn’t in the cards that night as she could barely make it to the bedroom without collapsing. Cliff immediately became angry and sulky. He accused Lisa of being withholding. He then told her that she was emasculating him, making him feel undesirable and inadequate.
Isabel is a doctor of medieval history. Her partner, Lars, has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Over dinner the couple got into a discussion about a philosopher from the eighth century, Isabel’s area of expertise. At one point, Lars made an interpretation of something the philosopher had said. Believing his analysis to be a misread, she told him that it wasn’t what was meant by the quote. Lars became incensed and accused Isabel of being controlling. He insisted that his wife had called him an idiot and was (intentionally) humiliating him, treating him like he was uneducated.
Finally, let’s consider Kelly and Steven. Kelly was driving when, unexpectedly, she made a turn that took the couple out of their way. Since they were in a hurry, Steven suggested that it would be faster to go the other way. In a flash, Kelly became furious and accused Steven of always having to do things his way. She further complained that he treated her like she was stupid and that her judgment couldn’t be trusted.
These situations may seem extreme, but in truth, they happen all the time—literally, all the time. Small disagreements end up in gigantic, painful impasses. In each example, it starts because one partner experiences negative feelings of some sort. In reaction to these negative feelings, they criticize their partner (you’re controlling, withholding, have to have it your way). But then, more dangerously, they blame their partner for causing their negative feelings. They convince themselves that their partner made them feel this way, did this to them, and ultimately, was the perpetrator of their pain.
We all carry certain beliefs, often from childhood, wounds and memories that we use to define who we are—our sense of self. We carry these forward into our intimate relationships. In the examples above, Cliff had always been the last kid picked for sports teams; he had felt inadequate his whole life, long before he met Lisa. For Lars, having to repeat third grade had caused him to doubt his own intelligence. Even with two graduate degrees, the fear that he was dumb still haunted him. In Kelly’s case, the belief that her judgment couldn’t be trusted was something she’d learned from a dismissive and ridiculing father.
Our negative self-perceptions are difficult enough on their own, but what makes them excruciating is the way we transform them, through our own narratives, into aggressions our partner is doing to us. We recreate the experience of being shamed or blamed, re-traumatize ourselves with the same pain we’ve lived, all the while believing it’s our partner doing it to us, and making us feel this way. Worst of all, we believe our partner actually holds these negative perceptions about us. It’s not me who thinks (or fears) I’m dumb, it’s my partner who thinks it. And so I live, still, as the one who is perceived as dumb, even though it’s now me who’s doing it to myself.
More than anything else, what alleviates this universal problem (which leads to endless other problems) is awareness. We have to develop the ability to observe what’s happening inside ourselves, to become conscious of the feelings arising in the moment, and particularly the most charged moments. But here’s the catch: We have to notice this before we react, before we start looking to our partner to blame, before we start constructing our causal narratives. While our partner’s behavior may have set off these negative feelings, we need to remember that the idea that our partner is the one doing this to us, thinking these negative thoughts about us, is an illusion, a made-up story. Right there, in the eye of the emotional tsunami, we have to be able to detach our experience from our partner’s actions, to stop creating causality and intention where they don’t exist.
In Lisa and Cliff’s case, Lisa’s exhaustion and subsequent decision to go to sleep rather than have sex was not about Cliff; it was about her own needs. Cliff’s sense of inadequacy may have been awakened by her choice, but she didn’t cause his feelings. Furthermore, she didn’t believe him to be inadequate; that feeling belonged to him. This is the distinction we need to be able to make for ourselves, again and again and again.
We don’t want to have to feel our insecurities, our negative self-perceptions, the insults we hurl at ourselves when the lights are out. And so we make our partners the perpetrators; we tell ourselves that they are the ones making us feel this way, the ones doing this to us. It’s easier to hate our partner for thinking we’re dumb rather than to wrestle with our own fear of being dumb, to blame our partner for humiliating us rather than to feel our own experience of humiliation and its real source. We have to become aware of when we are assigning to our partner what are in fact our own fears and self-criticisms.
In communicating with a partner, it’s critical that we express our experience as something separate from their actions. We can share what has arisen in us, but also acknowledge that our partner is not to blame for our experience. So too, we need to stay focused on what actually happened in the interaction, specifically what our partner did or said. We have to stay with the reality—not add anything to it, not tie it to everything else that’s ever happened, and not decide what it means about our partner’s perception of us or our self-worth. At the same time, we must separate our experience from our partner’s intentions and remind ourselves that they did not choose to make this happen.
Presented to our partner as our own experience, separate from them, without blame, they may even be able to show new compassion and empathy for our hurt. We may find that they even stop doing or saying the things that awaken our pain, because they care for us and don’t want us to suffer.
The next time you feel triggered by your partner, stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Smile even though you don’t want to. Relax, just for a moment. Now ask yourself, What am I experiencing right now? What’s happening inside me? Before saying anything to your partner, become aware of the feelings and sensations inside you. Notice any negative self-perception arising. Name it. Ask yourself, Is this is a fear I have about myself or a feeling I’ve experienced in the past? Who or what was its original source? Pause and offer yourself compassion; tell yourself that this matters.
If you choose to share this process with your partner, simply let them know what happened for you. You can say what triggered you, but keep the conversation tight to your own experience. Start your sentences with I: I feel, I experience, as opposed to you are, you think, you do, etc. Don’t turn your experience into something about your partner, something they did to you or feel about you. With this new approach, taking ownership for your own experience, I promise you three things:
- You will feel more understood.
- You will be happier.
- You will have a far more peaceful (and better) relationship.