The previous note focused on positive actions: in this note we will look at some psychological aspects of couple relationships that are somewhat challenging. If you are serious about ‘maintenance’ and ‘repair’, tackling D, E, and F will take quite a lot of effort: developing self-awareness, and practicing new behaviors.
D. Defensiveness (please note this is NOT about physical attack or defense. That is beyond the scope of these notes.) Many of us tend to defend ourselves verbally when we BELIEVE we are being verbally attacked, or criticized, whether or not the intention of the person speaking to us is to “attack”. For example: “This isn’t the brand of coffee I normally buy” right through to “You never listen to me!”. We automatically respond “It’s not my fault!”, “But that’s just not true!” or similar, without being able to hear the content of what was actually said, and without being able to judge accurately the extent to which an attack was being made (including seeing the difference between mild criticism and angry criticism). Sometimes this develops into a pattern in a couple’s relationship, with both people feeling their own reactions are fully justified, and finding and dealing with the original issue seems to get lost.
If you are able to notice and step back from the urge to respond defensively, you can often de-escalate an argument, and better manage feeling criticized.
Stop, think and try a ‘third way’ – not defending or attacking, but making a self-aware comment or asking for clarification instead:
“I can see you’re angry about it. But I’m not sure why?” or “I know you don’t like that happening” or “We’re going to need some time to sort this out”. And if the person’s criticism – if you’ve heard it accurately- sounds reasonable, you might even want to say “sorry!”
This is just one aspect of “Defensiveness”. A useful youtube resource is
https://youtube.com/UhXsqv8b7mE HOW NOT TO BE DEFENSIVE IN RELATIONSHIPS
E. Expectations When a couple first meet, expectations of each other are delightfully vague and overwhelmingly positive. As they get to know each other better, the minor irritations are often silenced by the thought “oh, I expect s/he will change…” . Then familiar patterns set in, and we forget that many of those unfulfilled expectations may remain tucked away in our heads, often leading to disappointment or even anger – either expressed verbally, or silently by sulking. Expectations, like ‘defensiveness’, may come from a deep place in ourselves (that we’re not easily aware of)- from our family or the environment we grew up in, and so are difficult to recognise and are not often put into words. Some may even be crazily unrealistic. A big challenge is discovering what unfulfilled expectations you have about your partner that you haven’t spoken to them about, and asking if s/he is aware of any unexpressed expectations of you, and gently exploring this together.
F. Feelings How DO you feel? How do YOU feel? It’s often difficult to answer, because what we read and what we are told about feelings often leads us to imagine/think we’re feeling something that we’re not, or it stops us being aware of an emotion that IS real, because it doesn’t seem ‘appropriate’ . But emotions, to put it simply, don’t follow rules, they are related to (but different from) thoughts, and they can sometimes take over our thoughts for a while, and then they fade again…
Practice recognizing your own feelings, and empathizing with your partner’s. Some obvious negative emotions to focus on are: fear/anxiety, shame and humiliation, and anger. And because these are connected to one other, and because we want to keep our relationship ‘safe’, we need to think carefully and lovingly about how we talk to our partners about them.
Discussions about feelings, with each person listening to the other, ARE possible!
General tips: Use a quiz (see resources such as https://www.theschooloflife.com/ ) or something you’ve read to get started. Don’t have a discussion when you’re getting drunk. Ensure you have time and privacy. Be empathic : really LISTEN. Don’t try and discuss everything in one go . If it’s getting too difficult, or one of you is doing all the talking, say “Let’s maybe come back to this another time” and make sure you do!