[note: this blog post assumes the relationship is not abusive. If your partner threatens you, commits violence against you, refuses to respect your right to leave conversations, or responds to your attempts to deescalate by sensing blood in the water and escalating further, this blog post is unlikely to be of much help]
This is an extra blog post because my skills trainer went through distress tolerance too fast and we ended up getting extra material from the relationship skills group!
I used to think I was not a person who contributed much to relationship conflict. In fact, I thought, it was the exact opposite! I was just sitting there, innocently, while other people hurt me. I was clearly not the person at fault, because I was crying and talking about what a bad person I was and apologizing constantly and running out of the room mid-sentence.
However, after a while, I realized that I had weaponized weakness. I hadn’t learned to assert my needs like an adult, but I still had needs. So instead I expressed my needs and desires by self-flagellating about how awful it was that I needed something in the first place. Or by crying and threatening self-harm and storming out of the room until my partner did what I wanted them to. Or by being passive-aggressive, “oh, no, I’m HAPPY to eat nothing but potatoes for the rest of my life, that is EXACTLY WHAT I WANT”.
This is, to put it mildly, not a good solution to relationship conflict.
So one of the things I want to say is not to assume that you don’t have a problem with relationship conflict resolution just because you don’t scream or call people mean names. Weaponized weakness is a thing too.
One of the big reasons that conflicts escalate is that people think “my partner hurt me! I have a right to respond!” The problem is that you cannot control your partner. You can only control your you. “He started it! It’s not fair! I’m completely in the right!” Well, do you want to be in the right, or do you want to be happy? “Well, she should–” Look. You’ve probably had this fight a dozen times by now. You can probably recite your partner’s side of the argument along with her. In the entire history of your relationship, has your partner ever behaved the way you think she should? No? Then why the fuck are you planning on it happening now?
A lot of times it feels like surrender not to attack your partner. But it’s actually not. It requires a lot of courage and self-control to be the person who says “we’re fighting, let’s stop” rather than “fuck you! and I NEVER liked that stupid purple wallpaper anyway!” That’s something you can be proud of.
Remember that this person is someone you love and care about. You don’t actually want to hurt them, not really. Sure, you might be able to give as good as you get, knock down their self-esteem worse than yours was knocked down, but is that really what you want to do? Do you really want to hurt the person you love? Imagine how you’d feel if someone else behaved the way you do to your partner. You’d feel upset! Why wouldn’t you be just as upset at how you behave?
If you’re in the mood for some serious self-reflection, look back over the last three or four arguments with your partner. What did you do that made things worse? Why did those things make it worse? What got you less than what you wanted? A lot of times, you’ll discover that you’re as much at fault as your partner is.
First, identify your triggers. What things make your emotions go through the roof? What things set you off? Anticipate that your partner will say those things again; a lot of relationship conflicts are about the same handful of issues, and your partner will probably wind up probing your same weak spots. Even identifying your triggers can help you be prepared: you can think to yourself “oh, I’m triggered” and get some distance.
Next, think about how you can resist the urge to say what you want to say. You can plan to think about the negative consequences of giving into the urge: you can remember that if you insult your partner or break down crying, they’re just going to get more upset, and you’re going to get more upset, and the night will end with everyone in their separate rooms sobbing themselves to sleep. You can think about the positive consequences of riding out the urge: feeling more love and compassion for your partner, not having to fight anymore, getting to talk about what’s actually wrong. You can challenge your distorted thoughts. You can just sort of observe your urge: you can think to yourself “huh, I am feeling the urge to call my partner an asshole, how about that.”
Then think about what you’ll say next time your partner says something that triggers you. Here are some scripts:
- “We’re fighting. I don’t want to fight.”
- “I feel sad” or “I feel guilty” or whatever emotion you actually feel and are covering up by getting upset at your partner. (If you’re a weaponized weakness person, often “I feel angry” paradoxically manages to deescalate the fight.)
- “I love you. I don’t want to keep doing this.”
- “I love you. I want to listen to what you’re going through, but I’m overwhelmed right now.”
- “We should take a break and get back to this later when we’re calmer.”
- “Thank you. I’ll think about that.”
You can imagine going through this cycle with each of your triggers. Imagine your partner saying a typical trigger to you. Imagine remembering your goal– that you love your partner, that you don’t want to make things worse. And imagine saying your script of choice. The more you mentally practice, the easier it will be to remember it in the heat of the moment.
Finally, when you have successfully separated yourself from the conversation, use crisis survival skills to calm yourself so that you can deal with the pain and the hurt that your partner has caused you. It is okay that you feel hurt. Anyone would.
A last note: you do not have to stay in a relationship that is high-conflict. Indeed, in many cases– especially when there are children– it is best to end those relationships. If a relationship is bad for you, you do not have to stay in it. But it’s a lot easier to think about whether or not you want to be in a relationship when you aren’t fighting all the time.