Over Corona while in locked down we had a range of responses to being locked in with our spouses and children. No doubt many of us were snappier and more critical than we like.
For some it was an ideal dream they have been longing for. Having no schedule, doing all sorts of spontaneous activities with the kids. Working together as a team or in tandem so each had time for themselves their kids and couple time.
For others, managing without clear boundaries, no clear schedule, was full of stress. Some of us had different ideas about how to best deal with lockdown. Some of us had more help from school which provided lots of relief.
I’ve noticed those of us who struggled the most had differences in expectations around demands around space and cooperation.
Sue Johnson, a world leading expert in couples therapy, author of “Hold Me Tight”, identified a pursuer and a withdrawer in every relationship. Different instances will trigger couples to take these different positions.
The dynamic looks like this:
The purser gets activated. As a result, they pull away from their partner pulling away. As a result, they feel lonely. They respond by reaching for their partner often in an angry and scared way. They may raise their voice or get hysterical. The withdrawer gets scared but responds differently. They pull away even more. The more one pushes the more one pulls. And round and round this dynamic goes.
A couple we’ll refer to as Abe and Sarah shared this story from their lockdown experience. They have two small children. One in nappies and the other just being toilet trained. The wife was busy cooking dinner and the toddler pooped in their undies. The father, changed the child and left the soiled undies on the porch. The wife discovered the undies when she had to get something from the porch.
Triggered by the site of the smelly undies, she said to her husband, “Why didn’t you put the undies in a bag?”
Implying why didn’t you finish the job. Put them in a bag and chuck them in the bin a meter away.
Hearing this as a major criticism he became withdrawn and hurt. Instead he was hoping she would praise him for changing the child himself and not expect her to. Abe literally left the house as a result. In his mind, he heard her calling him all sorts of names, “incompetent, stupid, irresponsible, etc.”
She never actually said any of these things. When asked what was going on in her mind, she simply couldn’t understand why he didn’t finish the job. She felt taken for granted.
This was a conversation the couple couldn’t have on their own. They were simply unable to sit and talk about their underlying hurt feelings. In all actuality they were saying the exact same thing. I feel unappreciated and undervalued.
Most people would say the argument is about whose turn it is to chuck out the undies. They may suggest a chore chart. The reality is that’s not what this is about at all.
This is about a much deeper issue. The argument is about what they do to make one another feel special and valued. When Abe called to make the appointment. He said he feels he can’t do anything right. Abe constantly walks on egg-shells because his wife is always asking him to do things in the way she wants it done.
Sure the couple may be able to benefit from sitting down and talking about how they want to organize chores. Everyone has different ideas about how things should be done.
The biggest trick is to allow our partner to do things the way that works for them. We need to stand back and say nothing.
We criticize our partner when we’re scared of losing ourselves. We’re afraid that allowing our partner to do things in a way that works for them, means that we lose our voice and our importance and significance in the relationship.
How do we deal with criticsm:
- Understand what triggers you.
- Notice it as it is happening in real time: What happens inside our bodies when triggered
- Catch the trigger– Don’t react immediately, rather ask yourself what is really bothering you.
- Get outside help: If you can get to this point on your own don’t stress. Most people need outside help.
- Awareness of your Triggers: Once you’re aware of why you’re triggered, share the real reason you are upset with your partner. This is called taking an emotional risk and being vulnerable.
- Take Emotional risks: Many of us struggle to take this risk because being vulnerable as a child didn’t pay off. Many of us were punished or reprimanded for sharing our real feelings. As a result we squelch our true feelings.
- Strengthen yourself: By strengthening ourselves we can share our feelings in a way that deepens our emotional connection. Something we all crave.
As you can see from the story, each has hurt feelings. Those feelings are layered on top of all sorts of meaning. Navigating the emotional layers takes time, effort and a strong and healthy ego
Mistakes Couples Make
The biggest mistake couples make is allowing these little occurrences to simply build up without addressing what is hurting them.
It’s like when a fire happens, we stop, drop and roll. We have to treat these incidences like a fire and put it out. Otherwise negative unattended feelings remain in the air. They infect us when we are least expecting or a major calamity we aren’t prepared for erupts.
By making time for one another and tending to hurt feelings on a regular basis we have the ability to keep our healthy fires of desire burning without the negative fires consuming us.
Micki Lavin-Pell is a professional Marriage therapist and Relationship Coach. Check out her website for more information about how she can greatly improve the success of your relationships: http://www.mickilavinpell.co.il.