One thing I’m learning in my relationship (and what a wonderful school it’s turning out to be), is that when my partner is upset with me about something that seems trivial to me, the real cause may not have mainly to do with that particular issue at all. And although it’s directed at me, especially if it seems disproportionate, her anger is probably rooted in an older pain that is too deeply buried to come to the surface right away.
If I only focus on the apparent cause of her frustration, and respond defensively, I’ll get sidetracked from getting to the heart of what the real issue is for her, and we’ll be doomed to go around in a neverending circle of arguing, coming back to the same kind of topic over and over again, each time putting more distance between us until the relationship breaks down. It’s a familiar pattern to me, I’m sorry to say. But when I can sidestep what may feel like a personal attack, and listen “through” her words to get to the heart of her pain, I can try to hear and understand what her deeper feelings are. This is true “love alchemy,” converting something negative into a chance to strengthen our sense of connection and commitment.
How I respond to her criticism will be largely determined by my reaction to her emotions.
I come from a typically quiet (i.e. emotionally repressed) British family, and the first time I encountered a woman’s strong feelings, rather than the detached rationality I was used to, I panicked. I simply didn’t know what to do. For me, emotions felt unfamiliar and threatening, as if they had derived from a place of fear and defensiveness. I interpreted her anger as a sign I wasn’t loved or respected. My self-preservation instincts told me I was in a dangerous place and needed to walk away. Sadly that’s exactly what happened on several occasions. It was only later as I recognized the pattern of how I was responding that I found a better way to deal with conflict, especially with a woman.
If I get stuck trying to be reasonable, defending myself, trying to show her why she is wrong, or if I get frustrated that she can’t seem to understand my point of view, this will get me nowhere except in the presence of an even more upset woman. But if I see conflict with my partner as an opportunity to learn more about her and myself and for us to move forward together, that’s more likely to be the outcome.
What she needs from me is not my defensiveness against her accusations.
She probably already knows if they’re unreasonable, but can’t stop her deeper feelings leaking out! I need to step back from reacting and try to hear what she’s actually upset about and respond to that reason.
Recently, my partner berated me for leaving the gas on in the kitchen when I went out. Not a smart thing to do, but to me it felt unnecessary for her to say much to me about it. I fully understood I screwed up and had already resolved never to do it again. So, I felt a bit annoyed that she seemed to have decided to ‘rub it in that I’d made a mistake by talking more about it. Then I realized that, in fact, she was really expressing how insecure she felt about whether we had a future together or not, and was looking for reassurance about whether she could rely on me or not. So, rather than feeling defensive, I bypassed the gas conversation and reassured her that I loved her and wanted to be around for the long term. Soon, I had a very happy and loving woman on my hands.
My partner needs me to be strong enough to handle what to me might seem her occasional unfair feelings of anger towards me, so I can offer support and comfort in relation to what she’s actually upset or anxious about. And that worry, which may be an extension of the relationship she had with her father, will often be whether I still love and respect her, whether I care enough to take the trouble to show that to her regularly and in ways she can feel.
Even though it is hard not to react defensively to what feels like being unfairly judged and criticized, instead of any attempt at self-justification, the best antidote is to offer a lot of love and appreciation. When I’ve been able to do that, the result is often great lovemaking instead of mutual acrimony and isolation.
I call that the epitomy of a no brainer!
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