In couples therapy, much of the time in the first several meetings is taken up with each partner venting his or her frustration. They’re telling their side of the story, partly in the hopes of convincing the therapist that they have it tougher than their partner does (which sometimes is true, but that’s beside the point). There’s nothing wrong with this process, and indeed it can be very productive, to have a safe place to get feelings out.
Then the trouble begins. Because for many of us, it’s hard to move past the anger. We have nothing new to say, but our feelings are still raw and insistent, so we think we still need to spew them. At this point, the anger moves from being necessary and assertive to being hurtful and harmful.
The truth is, this happens with any two people in a confrontation, from siblings to a parent and child to coworkers to people standing in line for a chai latte. In the heat of our anger, it feels so important to hold onto it, defend it, and voice it.
But watch what happens when one person feels attacked. They immediately either defend or withdraw (fight or flight). Either way, the path to communication has been pretty much shut down at that moment. You might feel better telling your spouse or child or fellow driver exactly why you have a right to your reaction. But if your goal is to work things out and gain greater connection—as almost all couples state when they come into counseling—then what you’re doing is accomplishing exactly the opposite. Congratulations, you have a right to be mad. Now what?
The answer is, we have to put aside the anger, or at least the expression of it. We can still be mad, but we have to be able to take care of those feelings on our own in order to dial down the emotional temperature. We do this by walking away, take a time out, doing breathing exercises, shooting hoops, whatever works for you. Then we can come back together more calmly in order to talk it out. We put aside those behaviors that don’t help—blaming, yelling and defending—in favor of the cool, composed, thoughtful tones that encourage the other person to hear us.
Pretty boring stuff. No one really wants to hear about “active listening techniques” and “using ‘I’ statements,” and talking to each other in these stilted ways can feel fake. But what’s the alternative? We’re grown-ups (unless you’re kids, in which case kudos to you for learning this early on, imagine what you’ll accomplish in life), so we have to control ourselves. And as with everything important in life, this is really hard to do. It takes a lot of practice and self-control to master the art of communication, and especially with family members, who press all of our buttons and often leave us feeling like hotheaded teens.
So the lesson is difficult, but clear: if you want to be heard, talk more softly. And if you want to win, you’re bound to lose.