Bradley and Melissa came into marriage counseling clueless as to why there was so much pain in their relationship. After listening to each of them describe their situation, it became obvious what the problem was. Neither of them could say anything about the other without harsh judgments. They were both brought up in families in which criticism was practiced on an ongoing basis. Neither of them had any idea that it was even possible to respond to condemning words with anything other than counter-attack. They had no idea how damaging this form of communication was to their feelings of trust and respect, and were unaware of any alternative responses. Nearly every conversation, deteriorated into a frenzy of name-calling that left them both feeling wounded.
Interrupting Destructive Cycles
Destructive cycles of this nature inevitably result in prolonged suffering and often in divorce. The constant wear and tear on the fabric of the relationship erodes not only the goodwill but also the health and well-being of both partners. It is not an exaggeration to describe the participants in such an on-going interactions as victims of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They are each perpetrators as well as victims in this cycle. And they will continue to be until they take responsibility for interrupting their own reactivity rather than focusing upon what their partner is doing to cause them to feel defensive.
When we feel attacked the impulse to react can feel overwhelming, even impossible to resist. Yet that is precisely what we are challenged to do in such cases. Resisting the temptation to counter-attack does not mean to be defeated, or to accept blame for a situation, or to agree that the other person is right and that you are wrong. It simply means that we are not attempting to coerce, manipulate, or punish our partner for having caused us to feel hurt, angry, or threatened.
When someone says, “That’s a ridiculous idea", or "that’s stupid,” we’re likely to feel hurt or invalidated. Acknowledging what we’re feeling isn’t easy but it will usually produce very different results than counter-attacking. Both Bradley and Melissa tend to be very judgmental and neither of them is particularly adept at speaking from their own experience and their focus tended to be on the other person. Consequently, judgments, opinions, and assessments are made without there being a real understanding of what the other person is feeling, so there is no real connection.
Finding strength to manage reactivity.
Communication is about more than speaking; it's about listening. Not fighting back means that you are more committed to enhancing respect in the relationship than you are being right. It does take a good deal more strength to manage our own tendency towards reactivity when we feel offended, than it does to indulge our desire for counter-attack. While it takes two to restore a broken relationship to wholeness again, it only takes one to end the destructive attack/defend/counterattack cycle. When one can embody vulnerability in the face of hostility, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the other to continue to relate as an adversary. Defensiveness reinforces the urge to continue to attack. Vulnerability cools aggressive impulses down. But not always, and not necessarily immediately, which is why it does feel like a risk to drop protective strategies in the face of a threat, and why it takes more courage to do this than it does to fight back.
And yet, it is possible for anyone with a clear intention to take steps in this direction, regardless of how broken down the relationship may be. It requires the willingness to notice and resist the impulse to withhold the angry words that want to fly out of our mouth in response to an insult and to take a moment to pause and check to see if anything really needs to be spoken at all, and if it does, to form it into constructive communication as opposed to “constructive criticism”.
Pause to Reflect
Non-reactive listening requires a high degree of self-restraint. We can inform our partner of our intention. “I need a few minutes to think about that. “I’m taking a brief break, but I’ll be back” or “I’m so upset right now I can’t hear what you’re saying.” In all these examples, because the speaker is taking responsibility for their experience and not blaming the speaker, it is much more likely that these statements will be met with acceptance.
The good news is that our capacity for development can expand. Even after a judgment has been blurted out, non-reactive listening can keep the situation from deteriorating further. Even when they take shots, we can lay down flowers. Defensive patterns don't dissolve overnight, but with practice, they can be put in their place. It's not easy, but the payoffs are worth the effort. Well worth it.
Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.
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