Dr. Jacobson, a graduate of Cornell University, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and the UCLA / San Fernando Valley Psychiatry Residency Program, is a Board-Certified Psychiatrist who has been in private practice in the Los Angeles area since 1999. He specializes in psychopharmacology, cognitive-behavior therapy, spiritual... more
Truly loving, nurturing, and sustainable relationships are not happening for a great many of us. The reasons for this have to do with our ego getting in the way, with our unwillingness to be more thoughtful, tolerant, and considerate, with our unwillingness to rise above the battlefield, to release our anger and resentments from the past, to effectively communicate, to negotiate differences, and to establish, maintain, and respect boundaries.
I say unwillingness because although it may be difficult to do these things, we choose not to. Loving, sustainable relationships are not the result of accidents or luck; they are the result of healthy choices.
It’s profound the degree to which most of us treat strangers, acquaintances, co-workers, and friends much better than we treat our loved ones. With our loved ones, we forget about being compassionate, generous, selfless, considerate, empathetic, and loving. We take them for granted. We ridicule them. We shame them. We ignore their needs and invalidate their feelings. And then we complain that we don't have the relationship that we want.
This isn’t tricky stuff. If we want to have a loving relationship, we need to be loving. If we want to be understood, we need to understand. If we want to be appreciated, we need to appreciate. If we want to be respected, we need to respect. If we want consideration, we need to be considerate. If we don’t want to be judged and shamed, we need to not judge and shame. If we want to be forgiven, we need to forgive.
We reap what we sow. It’s the Golden Rule and it works: When we treat others as we wish to be treated, we tend to receive what we give. Our world gets better. Our relationships become more loving, more nurturing, more satisfying, and more enduring.
So that’s the ticket: We choose to be generous. We choose to be grateful. We choose to be gracious. We don’t assume the worst. We give our partner the benefit of the doubt. When our partner says or does something that we feel is inconsiderate or unloving, we don’t immediately assume they wanted to attack us and hurt us. We don’t immediately go into an aggressive attack mode.
We remind ourselves that in the past we have said and done things that were thoughtless, inconsiderate, and unloving, and at those times we wanted our partner to understand, to tolerate our mistakes, to not hold it against us, and to forgive us. And so this is what we choose to do with our partner. We accept, we tolerate, we overlook, we forgive.
We don’t need to turn every thoughtless word or action from our partner into a battlefield. We can choose to not sweat the small stuff. We can choose to remind ourselves that they love us, they care about us, they’re not trying to hurt us. We can let it go. We don’t have to make a big stink about it.
This ties into the idea of “Would you rather be right or happy?” Oftentimes, when we feel wronged, we become insistent about confronting our partner, getting in their face, demanding that they feel guilty and shamed, demanding that they own their transgression, demanding an apology. And it’s oftentimes over minor stuff. And it’s oftentimes over stuff that could be open to interpretation. For example, when we’re feeling insecure we are more likely to perceive an innocuous comment from our partner as an attack. And this prompts us to go into our attack mode.
When we go into our attack mode and insist that we are right and they are wrong, we are loving and they are not, we are cool and they are cruel, and that they need to capitulate and apologize for their horrible acts, this oftentimes causes greater polarization in the relationship, greater antagonism and resentment.
If we don’t get their capitulation, everyone is upset. If we do get their capitulation, oftentimes everyone is still upset because of all the fighting that preceded it. Point being: If we insist on getting an acknowledgment that we are right, we usually end up not being happy. If we decide to stop needing to prove that we are right and instead choose our battles and choose to not make mountains out of molehills, we end up being happy. Isn’t that the whole point of having a relationship in the first place?
Why relationships fail
When our relationships fail it is because we have made choices which are destructive and self-defeating. So caught up in our ego and our need to be right, we are blinded to the truth that love flourishes when we are compassionate, accepting, and forgiving. So what can we do about it?
Stop yelling and disengage
When we are yelling at each other, we are not effectively communicating. We are not listening to the other person’s point of view. There is no true dialogue. No meeting of the minds. No desire for a meeting of the minds. We are just trying to continually drive home our own point, our own grievance, our own sense of righteousness, and our need for retribution.
This behavior is not merely a pointless waste of time. It is incredibly destructive to the relationship because basically all we’re doing is attacking and abusing each other. More to the point, we usually end up saying hurtful things we wish we hadn’t said, which turn into resentments, which get lodged in our partner’s heart where it can be very difficult to remove.
Consequently, the best thing to do when we’re yelling at each other is to stop yelling and disengage. We agree that we’re not being productive, that we should table the argument for a while, go our separate ways for a while, give each other some space for a while. We agree to re-engage in the disagreement at a later time when we’ve both cooled off, have had a chance to think about all the issues involved, and are prepared to calmly discuss, mediate and negotiate a peaceful resolution of the problem where both party’s needs will be taken into consideration.
Validate, sooth, and counterpoint
When we are engaged in an argument, we oftentimes respond to what we perceive as an attack with an attack. Out partner accuses us of some wrongdoing. We feel it is unjustified and not true. But usually the first thing that comes out of our mouth is: “That’s ridiculous!” “You’re crazy!” “There you go again!” “Calm down!” “You’re being hysterical!” “Did you forget to take your medicine?!” “Are you having your period?!”
We engage in all sorts of name-calling, shaming and blaming. It is all extremely invalidating to the other person. And it usually leads to them being infuriated, them responding with anger, aggression, and name-calling of their own, and an escalation from a potentially minor issue to World War III.
So here’s what we do: When we feel someone is unfairly accusing us of something, rather than immediately going to the default mode of “The best defense is a good offense,” we take a moment to think before we speak. And then we validate their feelings. We let them know we have listened to what they said. We have heard their complaint. We understand why they perceived the situation the way in which they did.
And then we soothe them as well. We take the time to remind them that we love them. We care about them. It is not our intention to hurt them in any way. Their feelings matter to us. And then we counterpoint. We express our position, our perspective on what happened.
Here’s an example of the three part process: When our partner accuses us of doing something unloving, we might say, "I can understand why you thought I was being inconsiderate. I want you to know that I care about you and am concerned about your needs and your feelings. In this situation, when I said ________, what you heard was ________, but what I meant was ________."
By first taking the time to validate and soothe them, they feel respected, they feel they have been heard, and they are much more likely to not get defensive and angry when we challenge their perceptions, and they are much more likely to be in a frame of mind where they can hear our position and calmly discuss and resolve the conflict.
By using these two techniques, a great deal of time once spent in emotionally exhausting and physically draining arguments can be re-directed into enjoyable and nurturing experiences which reaffirm our love and our commitment to our partner.