Every month, I want to share a bit of the "blue print" that I use with individuals, couples, families and helping professionals.
I think one of the worst parts about feeling “stuck” in our relationships is when we can’t make sense out of why we’re at a standstill. I hear phrases like, “I just don’t know what to do when she blames me,” or “I am so confused about why he doesn’t understand what I’m saying,” or “I don’t know where we go from here.” In fact, I hear these about every day, and the stuck-ness is agonizing.
From my experience, in order to get un-stuck, we need to understand just how we got into this place anyways. Why does this nasty pattern keep taking over our relationship? Sure, I could give you ten tips on “how to resolve conflict,” but I don’t think that will be sustainable. It’s the difference between giving fish and teaching fishing lessons.
So let’s start unpacking these patterns. To do so, I like to imagine an iceberg and for today, we’re only going to examine the part of the iceberg that is above water. Really, we’re looking at the part of the pattern that we “see” on the outside through words and actions.
From my experience, in order to get un-stuck, we need to understand just how we got into this place anyways
I think the best way to describe this pattern is to give an example:
- Partner 1 (Sarah) does something that bothers or upsets Partner 2 (Tony).
(Sarah reminds Tony that he has to watch the kids this weekend)
- Partner 2 experiences an internal, emotional reaction “underneath the surface” (using our iceberg picture).
(Tony already feels alone in parenting most of the time, so this also gets him pretty frustrated)
- Partner 2 also starts a mental commentary of the whole situation.
(Tony starts saying to himself, “Doesn’t she realize how much I already watch the kids?” “She never considers my time on the weekend”)
- Partner 2 displays an outward, reactive response.
(Tony shrugs, says, “Whatever” and walks away)
- Partner 1 sees Partner 2’s response and has an internal, emotional reaction (under the surface, of course).
(Sarah feels unimportant when she asks Tony for support, so she also gets frustrated and annoyed)
- Partner 1 also starts a mental commentary of the whole situation.
(Sarah starts thinking to herself, “I can never get through to him-he just walks away from the conversation” “He’s so selfish and just thinks about what he wants”)
- Partner 1 displays an outward, reactive response.
(Sarah starts to raise her voice as her reminder now becomes a nagging demand)
The more Sarah demands, the more Tony retreats. And the more Tony retreats, the more Sarah demands.
What a vicious cycle we find ourselves in sometimes.
I encourage you to map out this pattern for your own relationship, and here are a few questions to help you get started (thanks to Douglas Tilley, LCSW for these questions):
I feel the most disconnected from my partner when…
My first feelings are…
I start telling myself …
I often react by (describe behaviors)...
My partner often reacts to me by (describe behaviors)...
When my partner reacts this way, I often feel...
Next time, we’re going underneath the surface.
More to come,