Have you ever used the phrase “he or she really pushes my buttons?” What people usually mean when they say that is the other person said or did something to hook them into an angry, defensive posture that typically results in escalating conflict. We all have a natural fight or flight response that is designed for self-preservation when we feel threatened. If someone were to attack us in a back alley, our fight or flight response would prepare us to fight back or flee by a host of physiological changes that take place in the body. This is a wonderful mechanism for that type of circumstance. The problem that arises, however, is that if our spouse is setting off that response in us, or we are setting it off in them, then we have become adversaries locked in a self-preserving win/loose struggle that spells disaster for the marital relationship. The following are some practical considerations to avoid triggering this reaction in your spouse and remaining partners and teammates engaged in constructive problem solving:
1. Train yourself to avoid behaviors that tend to trip the fight or flight button and sap the life out of the relationship.
When working with couples, I usually list about seven behaviors to avoid that include shaming, blaming, name calling, criticizing, complaining, nagging and threatening. It is understood that any physical aggression toward one’s spouse is highly destructive. I ask clients to develop the habit of consciously observing themselves. When tempted to do any of the above behaviors, recognize that you are not only damaging your spouse but the very marriage that you share in common. So tell yourself to stop it.
2. When you must confront your spouse about an issue, use “I” messages in a three step process as follows:
First describe the behavior that is troubling to you (e.g., do you remember when we were with our friends last night and you made a joke about me?). Next, express how it made you feel (e.g., “when you did that it embarrassed me and hurt my feelings”. Finally, if it is not self evident, ask for what you need, “I would appreciate it if you would not do that in the future now that you know I am sensitive about that issue”. Using that process softens the approach and makes it easier to hear your concern as opposed to “you” messages which set off the fight or flight response. Restating the above with a negative “you” message would be, “you are such an insensitive jerk, why do you always have to make fun of me when we are around others.” Do you see the difference?
3. Listen reflectively to your spouse.
When we are in the midst of an argument or a contentious subject, everything inside us wants to make our points and win the argument. I suggest that you train yourself to listen reflectively before ever expressing your point of view. By that I mean, that you listen carefully and then, out loud, restate back to your spouse exactly what you heard them say. This makes you very safe to your partner and demonstrates that you are listening. If you didn’t hear correctly, it allows your partner to clarify what they were trying to say and avoids misunderstanding, a common source of conflict.
4. Validate your spouse’s opinions and feelings
By this I mean for you to make the effort to try to put yourself in your partner’s position and see from their perspective what it is like for them. When we do this we will usually say something like , “I can see where you are coming from” or “it makes sense that you would feel that way.” It is not the same as agreeing with them. You don’t have to have the same opinion or feeling about an issue as your spouse but you must accept that they have a right to their own opinions and feelings. When we invalidate someone we say things like “that’s dumb” or “you must be crazy to feel that way.” By validating you remain a safe person and reduce the likelihood of conflict.
5. Finally, the Bible says, “have fervent love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” 1Peter 4:8
Make it a point to practice extending extra grace to your spouse instead of judgment. Life is hard and we all struggle and want to be understood and treated with compassion and mercy. Why not begin by extending that to your partner and choose to overlook minor annoyances while working to understand the struggles your spouse may be experiencing.
By practicing the safe behaviors described above, your spouse will be secure in your presence. He or she can relax and open up so that you are building emotional intimacy and deep satisfaction in your relationship. If on the other hand, you engage in the negative behaviors, you will trip the fight or flight response and remain engaged in an adversarial, win/loose battle that will damage your marriage no matter who wins the argument.