Why You Always Have the Same Old Fight
Do you notice that you and your partner always end up having “the same old argument”? It's as if it doesn’t matter at all where the conversation or conflict started ... it just always ends in the familiar sinkhole.
After a while you may understand that the issue isn’t really about the housework, the weekend plans or money. It's something else something you can’t put your finger on. You just know the sinking feeling when you see “the look,” hear the sound in their voice or feel your own feeling of sinking inside, that voice telling you, “Here we go again.” This ongoing familiar fight can feel like an endless loop with a dead-end and no way out. But why?
Well, the reason it feels like it's a loop, is because it IS a loop. Without learning how to notice the patterns as they arise, there's no way to stop a vicious cycle in its tracks. That's why I am telling you that there is a way through it. The only place to start is to recognize the barriers each person must overcome, and then developing strategies to manage these barriers productively.
To begin, let's look at what I like to think of as the four common causes of these cyclical, repetitive arguments:
Most repeated fights are not really about what they seem to be about. In fact, they tend to happen because something in our past is being triggered by a present experience, even if it’s minor. Our partner might do something that evokes memories of feeling bullied, betrayed or falsely accused in the past and we are actually reacting to our history rather than to what is actually happening now.
The first step here is awareness of these triggers. But read on, as I will elaborate on "exit strategies" in the next section below!
2. Core Issues
The vulnerabilities and reactivity we bring to repeated fights may include core values and questions like “Who’s in charge of my life?” “Am I valued and accepted for who I am” and “How much can I trust you to have my back”?
Again, take stock of what emotional triggers make you feel particularly vulnerable, and experiment with being accountable to those things when you communicate with your partner.
3. “The Other Side Of Attraction”
Characteristics that attracted us to our partners in the beginning may become sources of annoyance later. I call this “the other side of attraction.” In other words, we may fall in love with someone because they seem predictable and reliable. When the “love drug” wears off and the honeymoon phase is over, the same behavior may seem rigid and lacking imagination, and we’ll probably argue about that.
4. The Loop
Repetitive fights breed further iterations of the same argument, period. One person's idiosyncrasies create vulnerable patterns in another person's behavior, which may, in turn, aggravate first person further. And so on . . . this is the definition of a vicious cycle.
But let's take this one a little further.
For most women, the number one concern is disconnection, while for men it is feeling unjustly criticized or being seen as incompetent. So let's take a heterosexual couple, Jake and Meg. Say Jake makes weekend plans to go hiking with his friends and Meg feels abandoned. This can trigger a “fight” response from her in the form of anger or sarcasm. Jake sees this as criticism, triggering a “flight” instinct, so he withdraws which intensifies Meg’s fears of disconnection. The loop builds up steam, and continues.
So, now that we've looked at some of the main causes for these repetitive fights, let's consider some strategies to change the dynamic.
1. Build your “exit strategy” toolkit.
No matter how hard you try you cannot change your partners behavior, only your own. Find an exit strategy to the loop. This begins by recognizing when you are in it, and soothing yourself out of your normal reaction. Mantras, breathing slowly, images of your dog, garden or favorite hike can all act as agents to stop your own inner loop of reactivity. Often if one person can break out of it, the other will also become more centered and it can stop.
2. Look inward.
In the middle of the “same old-same old,” we are looking out and see our partner. Their uninviting body language, their mean looking mouth, their unfriendly eyes. The challenge here is to look within, ask yourself, “Would I want to take a selfie of my facial expression RIGHT NOW and post it on social media?” I have taught myself to think of one of the things I appreciate the most about my partner in the middle of the hardest loops, and more and more often it backs me off of my defensive strategy. It doesn’t eliminate the problem but it often helps reframe the fight to be more productive.
3. Let go of your need to be right.
When you KNOW you are right and your partner is wrong, you know you are in trouble! (Of course there are certain things that ARE wrong, lying, hitting, breaking commitments. But most often we are feeling self-righteous about our point of view rather than an actual transgression.) It may feel justified, but it will usually fuel even greater conflict and distance.
4. Agree not to discuss the problem until the storm has passed.
When we are in the middle of the trouble we are bombarded by neurochemicals that are while arguing, most of us are “flooded” — bombarded by neurochemicals that make it hard for us to relate constructively. We are reacting, not responding.
Taking time out, going for a walk, agreeing to come back to it within 24 hours may help you each become calm and reasonable enough to find a resolution. And of course, if there’s an ongoing issue (and no, not just a habitual, unproductive communication dynamic), you may sometimes feel like you can’t make progress. In those cases, consider seeking the help of a skilled counselor or coach.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
5 Signs You're An Emotionally Intelligent Person
Emotional intelligence (also known as “EQ”) is the Queen of all intelligence, reflecting the strength of our connection to other people, in public or in private, at work or in love. This kind of intelligence helps us to deal with “difficult people” successfully, to use humor appropriately (even to laugh at ourselves), and to respond in a compassionate and skilled way to people when they’re upset.
The root of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, sometimes called mindfulness, which takes us deep beneath the surface of our identities as “doers” and the roles we play. When Socrates advised “know thyself,” he didn’t mean it in terms of what we do for a living, either, or how we want others to see us. To know thyself includes being aware of your core longings and values, as well as your wounds and the ways you protect yourself.
To know yourself also means to acknowledge that in some ways you don’t know yourself — there is always more to discover. True self-knowledge involves embracing everything about ourselves, even those parts we avoid or don't understand.
Wonder how your EQ rates? Well, you can start by checking out the following five signs of great emotional intelligence skills, and do your own self-assessment as to how well you score. Keep in mind, of course, that you can build on your skills. As human beings, each of us has the innate ability to become savvy in our EQ.
1. You have the ability to self-regulate.
“I just had to say it.”
“I sent that e-mail before I thought about it.”
Each of these statements reveals someone whose emotions rule their behavior and actions, often with disastrous outcomes. By contrast, people with a high EQ register their feelings as information and make an informed decision about how to act in a way that’s productive.
Ultimately, all of our emotions are useful. Each feeling is like one of the strings of a musical instrument: each gives us a unique vibration, and provides us valuable information about ourselves. It’s how we interpret the emotion, and then how we choose to act, that determines whether we’re going to create havoc or enhance our lives.
2. You respond rather than react.
Sometimes, we blame our rash reactions to people or situations by saying we just “needed” to express ourselves. But the truth is that we don’t need to react out of raw feeling. When we give ourselves time to explore the feeling, we realize that the feeling has a job to inform us about what's up.
The skill that grows through the practice of any form of mindfulness is the ability to witness our internal process before we do anything about it. Then we can respond with a mixture of feeling and logic. To take the time simply to observe the emotion as it arises decreases the sense of urgency to act.
Strong positive and negative emotions may cause us to express ourselves inappropriately if we’re overwhelmed by them. When emotions run strong, it’s hard to know what’s really going on until the body has settled. That’s why meditation and deep breathing are helpful. They give us space and time to settle, and then to decide how to express what it is we feel.
3. You know your triggers.
Each of us has particular triggers that set off certain emotions. Some of these triggers ricochet back to an earlier stress or trauma. To know your triggers is a critically useful piece of awareness to have, just as it’s essential to know how you typically react once one of your triggers is pulled.
None of us likes to be told what to do, but my inner teenager really can’t stand it when I’m in the kitchen. Give me a suggestion when I’m cooking (which for most people usually is a 1 or 2 on the irritation scale of 10), and it can feel off the charts to me. My first instinct is to retort with an ungracious remark like “Why don’t you take over and make it yourself?” But this kind of defensive, temperamental reaction is never helpful.
But because I’ve come to see that I tend to behave like a diva in the kitchen, I’m usually prepared to make a counter-instinctive move: I take a deep breath and observe myself with compassion and amusement. Nowadays, I may even be able to give a suggestion serious consideration. After all, it’s my trigger that’s the problem here, not the tip to add more mustard to the salad dressing.
4. You really listen.
To hear the spoken word with our auditory system is a passive, mechanical process. To listen, however, is an active process, one in which we engage with another person, which requires us to interpret and read the nonverbal cues that accompany what they say and what we hear.
There’s no room in this encounter for you, the listener, to dismiss, to argue, or to assume that you already know where things are headed as a person tells you their story.
5. You are a good communicator.
Although many books on communication skills emphasize the importance of directly expressing our emotions, there’s a lot more to being a smart communicator than simply saying what we feel as we are feeling it.
The ability to give and receive tenderness and to express and respond to upset feelings are skills that require time, patience, and the discernment to know what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of how much to share.Good communicators know that to talk about what’s going on inside us is a prerequisite, but this inner examination needs to be done with patience and practice.
The commitment is well worth the effort, though. The improvement in our relations with other people everywhere in our lives can be tremendous. An advance in your EQ can indeed change your life.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Why There's No Such Thing As Closure
My friend Phyllis Pilgrim is a yoga and meditation teacher at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Students from around the world, young and old, men and women, find her work inspirational and life-changing.
But things haven't been so easy for Phyllis. As a child during WWII, she was held captive with her mother and brother in Japanese internment camps in Java. Much later in life, her mother told her that she had survived those years in the camp because she had made it a practice to say thank you every day when she could “see something beautiful, hear something beautiful, and say something beautiful to someone.” Phyllis has made her mother’s practice the foundation of how she leads her life.
I thought of Phyllis recently as I listened to my client Cathy lament about how lonely she was. No wonder. Long ago, Cathy had come to the conclusion that no one could be trusted enough to share true love and affection.
“Everyone betrays you in the end,” she murmured in my office one afternoon. She learned this early on: when she was 13, her father had left her mother. So at 38 years old, she continued to view this bitter experience as the essence of what could be expected of another human being, and as a reminder of why it was better not to trust others.
Neither Cathy nor Pilgrim will ever “get over” their painful experiences. Sure, one of them (Cathy) has made her experience a blueprint to keep recreating the loss, while the other Phyllis) has found a way forward to embrace the best of life. But neither have aimed to forget about or de-emphasize the profound impact of their past.
And odds are that all of us have experienced traumatizing experiences in the past, varying in degrees of intensity and impact. So for all of us, it helps to remember that there are some basic truths about human experience that are universal.
We can find ways to incorporate these truths into how we live our lives, rather than pretend things could’ve been different. With that, here are seven foundational truths about human suffering and resilience:
1. Closure doesn’t exist.
How often do we hear a friend say of an ex-lover, “I just need to see her one more time so we can have closure”? Or listen to the survivor of a tragic story interviewed say, “When find out why the accident happened, I will get closure.”
The answer is often. But one of the hard truths about this life is that there is really no such thing as closure. We hold onto the myth of it as a comfort mechanism, but that mechanism is ultimately a defense.
The pain we have experienced may be reduced and even fade. But the memory is in us forever. And the scar doesn’t just go away, but rather becomes a part of us in the present.
Many of the great teachers and philosophers believe our wounds are the openings to compassion, consciousness, and wisdom. We can honor our wounds if we can recognize their purpose rather than deny them, which gives them power over us.
2. What we do with “unfinished pieces” is up to us.
No ceremony, no “big talk,” or goodbye ritual will change what has happened. Experiences happen, and it is our choice to figure out how to respond. To be an adult is to accept our wounds as a part of our past and to know our choice lies in how we move forward, which includes acceptance that life gives us pain and loss. Of course, it also offers new beginnings and joy, if we’re open to them.
3. Time doesn’t heal the wound; it changes how we see it.
The happiness in our lives doesn’t erase the pain and the pain doesn’t eliminate the gifts and the new beginnings if we allow them to come into us.
4. Everything is transient.
One of my granddaughters lives in New York. We’ve had a special bond practically since she was born. It’s always a delight for me to visit her.
But the last time I went to see her, there was a shift. She had just turned seven, and I noticed a difference in our dynamic. When I went to pick her up at school, she, like always, ran up to me and gave me a big, heartfelt hug. But then she turned away to rejoin her friends. It was totally right and age appropriate that she was far more interested in her classmates than in me. Still, I felt sad, even as I accepted this sign of the natural passage of time, from the seasons to the cycles of love. The only real stability we have is within ourselves.
5. Life isn’t always fair.
Vicki was the first person I ever knew who was into health food and fitness. I met her when she was 20. She died before she was 22, of an illness no one saw coming nor knew how to treat. Meanwhile, her mother Sue weighed at least 300 pounds, and spent her days watching television and reading Harlequin romances. She’s still alive at 94, and all her organs function perfectly.
How can this be? Life is unfair. Finding a way to do all we can to make our life turn out as we want it to, and then letting the outcome be what it is going to be is the only path to inner well-being.
6. Our real power lies in how we react to what happens to us.
We can’t erase our past as though it didn’t exist, and I don’t believe we’re meant to get over our losses. As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen has written, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” If we see our sorrows as a passage or a way station, they can inspire us to use the incredible gift of our life.
7. Finally, we don’t “get over” anything.
Each day we create our future by choice and with the gifts of the lessons we’ve learned.
Especially the hardest ones.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Why It's Unhealthy To Obsess Over Your First Love
As a couples’ therapist, I often give talks about love. And I often start by asking audience members to describe the sensations and feelings they felt the first time they fell in love. I get similar answers every time, and most people respond instantly, without even having to think or remember. “Racing heart,” says one. “Insanity and obsession,” says another. “Sweaty palms,” says a third.
It's because of these chemical reactions that we remember our first love so vividly…even if it turned out poorly, even if we’re currently in a great relationship, even if we know it never would’ve worked.
Because we first felt that chemical rush when falling in love for the first time, it’s natural to associate that experience generally with your first love. But unfortunately, just because you fell in love with that person doesn't mean that he or she still would be the object of your desire in the present. With that, here are five hard truths about those times when you find yourself thinking of your first lover.
1. Looking for your first love can create havoc in your life.
Especially if you are married or in a committed relationship. It's OK to engage with the memories and the fantasy of your first love. It might even teach you about what you're looking for in love in the present. But thought and action are different. Try to sit with the discomfort.
2. The imprinting on our hearts and head may have little to do with the person we first fell in love with.
And it may have everything to do with the feeling we felt — the romance, the nostalgia.
3. Those pure-hearted, deep, and tender feelings of first love may never leave you.
The longing is most often the amazing awakening to love, rather than the actual human being you are thinking about.
4. An ongoing relationship with an imperfect person can't hold a candle to the fantasy of your first love.
Your current partner may be annoying and sometimes even impossible. But no matter who they are or what they're like, know that your first love will always be your first love, plain and simple. You will always have intense associations with that person, but those don't mean your current partner isn't worth it.
5. The Internet is filled with stories about people reuniting after 50 years apart.
That doesn't mean you should try this out for yourself. In fact, these stories most often do NOT turn out well.
I remember my first love. I was a thirteen-year old girl over at a friend’s house after school one day when a boy appeared from next door and offered to carry in the groceries for my friend’s mother. He glanced at the group of us, but his look lingered on me, and he smiled with his eyes, which seemed to drill into my very soul (this expression alone makes me feel thirteen again).
I was struck by a pining, a craving, and a craziness that are still with me almost sixty years later. The boy asked me my name, but I wasn’t able to answer, or even to say hello. I can conjure this experience on demand, along with the dry mouth, the racing heart, and the shock that left me mute and blank.
This first romance contained much more misery than joy. The boy was funny, smart, and incredibly charming, but he also was deceptive. Ten years ago, I went to his funeral, grieving, but also grateful that we’d parted ways. I’ve been deeply committed and happily married to another man for almost three decades, and yet still my ardent first feelings remain. I still harbor a desire for the boy I met that day, which defies logic, time, and reality.
These feelings for a long-ago lover aren't necessarily a matter of brain chemicals only. We protect the moment when we first felt the magic, because we awakened to the mystery of love, which, for all the pain and confusion it may bring, is also a gateway to life’s true wonders.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.