Some of the most emotional, distressing conversations we have in our lives happen with our partners. With a single word or look, a peaceful evening can turn into a gut-wrenching one. If we are not careful, the accelerating intensity of our emotions can skyrocket, cycling and feeding on our partner’s feelings and words, leaving us feeling disconnected and in despair. These experiences happen so quickly it almost feels impossible to act differently. And yet the pain we feel afterwards makes us wonder if there is another way.

The key to this other way involves slowing down, feeling into our vulnerability, and speaking from that place. It involves sticking with what is happening and how one is feeling in the present moment. This is not an easy task. When our partner does or says something that offends, often our reaction follows without much – or any – forethought. We don’t even realize we have been triggered until long after the fact, after the damage has already been done. When we feel attacked, it can feel like a monumental effort is required to stop oneself from retaliating. Yet, if we want to mature in our relationship and connect more deeply with our partner, it is important to identify the feelings of vulnerability that hide beneath our anger. This is not to deny anger’s validity but to honor its rightful place. The anger acts like a shield, protecting those soft places within our psyche. However, growing in relationship requires that we put down this shield and share our sensitivities with our partner. In this way, we have a better chance of being heard, rather than allowing our anger to feed a vicious cycle of attack and counter-attack. Also, there are almost always other emotions underneath the anger, such as feeling hurt, betrayed, rejected, criticized, or ashamed. When we access these deeper emotions and bring them into the conversation, we allow for a different kind of dialogue to take place.  

The first step in achieving this kind of dialogue is to remember the intention to pause and examine our experience when we feel aversion toward something our partner says or does. The operative word here is “remember” – in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget our intention. Taking this step back like this may feel like it requires a lot of effort, especially at first. Let’s look at an example. It’s Valentine’s Day and my partner and I plan to have a nice dinner together at home. Because he’s going to be working kind of late that night, I offer to cook dinner and have it ready when he gets home. However, when he walks in the door 45 minutes late, cheerfully gabbing with someone on his phone, I am livid. How could he do this? What the hell has he been doing? I have been working hard to cook a nice dinner for us and it’s Valentine’s Day, and now our nice meal is cold! While still on the phone he whispers to me “hey baby, sorry I’m late” in a casual way that makes me want to scream. I immediately start railing at him; “where have you been?! I made a nice dinner for us and now it’s cold! I thought we were going to have a special evening together! What the hell?!”. How does he respond to my attack? With anger and defensiveness, of course. According to him it was an important phone call; they had been playing phone tag and now finally he could answer and talk. But the vicious cycle has begun. Pretty soon our attacks are bigger than this incident and we start dragging other issues into the argument. “You always do this!” “You never understand!”

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of the fight and slow things down. When my partner walks in late and acts like it’s no big deal, my blood begins to boil and I want to react, to attack. This is the moment. Can I just pause, notice my impulse, and ask myself: what am I feeling right now? What am I noticing? My breath is sharp and shallow. My chest feels tight. My heart is beating fast. I feel hot and tense. I feel all this energy in my body that I just want to release. I feel angry! Just acknowledging this to oneself internally is the first step towards creating some space in the mind. I might say to myself “Ok, now is a good time to take a deep breath. Why am I feeling so angry?” Then I realize it’s because I am feeling unimportant. I feel like my partner forgot about me and made something else more important than spending this special time together to honor our relationship. I feel hurt. Ok. Can I acknowledge all of this when I talk with my partner? Maybe I can say something like; “I hear that you felt like you needed to take the call, but I’m feeling angry, and hurt – like this dinner and spending this time with me isn’t important to you.” Hopefully this is something my partner can hear, and now he has the opportunity to respond in a softer way rather than needing to defend. Engaging in this kind of dialogue allows a couple to continue moving forward in their relationship by learning more about each other’s vulnerabilities, rather than getting into a full-on fight, which would then need to be “cleaned up” to be able to reconnect.

Because of the evolutionary biology of our bodies – and the leftover reptilian part of our brain that is programmed to be on alert for potential danger – it may take a herculean effort to override this impulse to react. However, by pausing, finding one’s vulnerability or inner place of hurt feelings, and taking the courageous step to share this with one’s partner, we create the opportunity for a deeper connection – one in which we learn about each other, take care of each other, and find safety in one another.

Written by Heather Galvano, MFT. Heather specializes in Couple Therapy @The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center.