How to have plenty of ‘arguments’ with your partner (about nothing in particular) without learning anything, as a way to slowly but surely ruin your relationship.
For most of us, there are few things more frustrating than getting drawn into a shouting match with a partner, and then being unable to remember what kicked it all off. At the end of it, we feel depressed and discouraged, not least because we know we could have been using that time in so many more enjoyable or productive ways — eating ice cream; making love; or, basically, doing ANYthing else.
As I’ve suggested in a previous GMP article, there is always the opportunity, when tempers flare, for partners to take a step back from all the ‘reacting’ and to see what each is bringing to fan the flames, and— if there’s a mutual willingness to ‘own’ feelings and reflect on what the roots of those feelings may be— this can in fact be a fast track on the process of exposing and dissolving buried pain and/or habitual behaviors laid down long in the past. Behaviors which are usually blocking intimacy as a fear-driven defense.
For people who don’t want to do that work, and have decided (maybe unconsciously) to wreck whatever connection they have in their relationship, I want to share some guaranteed ways to get temperatures rising and voices raised in the shortest time possible. Yes, I am drawing on personal experience, I’m sorry to say. (NB abusive behavior of any kind is ruled out, as it should be in any relationship).
A sure fire way to get pissed off quickly is to insist on interpreting what’s been said to you in the way that feels the most painful. The motto seems to be to always look on (or assume) the dark side. Many of us seem instinctively good at torturing ourselves like this. Our lover tells us we seem tired, and we think maybe their saying that we’re not as good in bed; or we tell them they’re looking ‘healthy’, and they thinks we mean they have ‘a few extra pounds’. Maybe it’s because of buried feelings that we deserve to be punished. There’s a psychological payoff of being able to feel either like a victim (it’s so unfair…and they owe me now) or morally superior (however horrible I am, at least I’m not as bad as s/he is!). To get maximum effect, you have to disbelieve or ignore any insistence that what was actually meant was something positive.
Levels of self–confidence and mutual trust have a lot to do with how we interpret what our partner is trying to say to us, of course. I suspect most of us men need a lot more reassurance from our partners than we’re readily willing to admit to. I’ve identified two main types of (verbal) communication which create the best opportunities for ‘misunderstandings’. The idea is to confuse these different types and create maximum opportunities for a mismatch between the intention of a ‘message’, and how it is interpreted.
1. Shared Emotions/feelings and perceptions.
These are statements of ‘fact’ for the person sharing them, about their reality. E.g. ‘I feel nervous when you drive that fast’. A good way to upset someone who has shared something like this is to act as if it’s their ‘opinion’ (see below, for a comparison) and respond by saying: “I don’t think so”, or negate it with something like: “How could you possibly think/feel that?” or “you’re being ridiculous!” Or if you really want a fast reaction, go the whole hog with a flat denial like ‘‘No you don’t!”
It’s also effective to respond to personal statements like “I feel you don’t listen to me”, with a rebuttal like “What do you mean, of course I do “ or angry defensiveness like: “you’re always criticizing me!” Denying someone’s reality like this is a good way of disempowering/upsetting them and making them angry.
Responses that show interest or empathy like: ‘I’m really sorry you feel that way. Can you explain more?” or “Is there anything that I could do differently to change this?” will reduce the chance of having a good row, and may even lead to a relationship being repaired; so if that’s not what you want (and only you know why not!) – be careful!
2. Opinions are more subjective
Opinions often involving generalizations, though not always, and aren’t backed up by any kind of experience or evidence. To really get someone’s goat, it works best to express these opinions as if they were ‘facts’. So “You’re driving too fast!” will heat things up faster that “I think you’re driving too fast”, or “you’re driving too fast for me; please would you slow down”. The underlying assumption for the speaker is: “I’m right”, and it goes without saying that therefore “you’re wrong”. On a more personal level, ‘feelings’ presented as ‘facts’, like “You’re acting distantly”, or even “You don’t love me any more!” put the other person on the back foot. It’s hard not to react to that by being defensive and it leading to frustration and angry denials.
Blaming a partner for our own feelings is the classic way of expressing projections and avoiding taking responsibility for them — removing any possibility for personal growth or change. Statements like ‘You’ve made me angry’, or ‘You’re so sensitive/selfish/stupid’ reveal things that we probably feel about ourselves but can’t admit to. Habitually using projections can be a fine way to ensure that you both stay stuck in a co-dependent cycle of negativity for the rest of your lives, and avoid the stress and worry that can come from feelings of intimacy or happiness together. (If you have that, there’s always the worry that you don’t deserve it, or might lose it.)
Any of the above techniques can help you sabotage your relationship in the slowest and most painful way possible. Of course, if you seriously want to end a relationship, the most grown up and most effective way to do it is to speak to the other person face to face, avoid putting any blame on to them, explain why you feel either you need to leave, or believe it would be in the best interests of all concerned for it to end. But that’s another topic for another day!
I’d strongly suggest you check whether what you’re actually caught up in is the kind of unconscious undermining that can happen when, at a deep level we’d actually like a relationship to work, but are afraid of the vulnerability or risk of being hurt/disappointed that this will inevitably entail. This is the kind of ‘approach/avoidance’ dance that, for various reasons, many of us men can get caught in. If you do suspect that you may have been unconsciously ruining things, but that’s not actually what you really want to do, it’s time to take a step back, observe your habitual and/or unconscious sabotage techniques and then step by step being to change them This will require some introspection to understand where the roots of your anxieties lie (most often in childhood) and it will be hugely helpful if you have enough trust in the relationship to be able to share with your partner what’s going on for you. From that point on, if you have the courage and the motivation, you are on the path to the kind of authentic and intimate relationship most of us want, when we’re honest enough to admit it.
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