Have you noticed that, in our culture, slurs about gender, class, race and sex have become fairly commonplace and are often even seen as humorous by some? Howard Stern, Ann Coulter, Jesse Jackson and Bill O’Reilly, to name a few well known pundits, have been busy playing the ‘can you top this’ game. And pop culture icon Sasha Baron Cohen, thanks to his edgy jokes in the movie Borat, won Hollywood’s coveted Golden Globe award. Nevertheless, shock jock Don Imus crossed the line when he called the women of the Rutgers basketball team “nappy headed hos.” His remark stirred up all sorts of feelings – of outrage, vulnerability, anger – not easily put to rest.
What happens in the media is not that different from what transpires between couples when emotionally charged discussions get completely out of hand. Stephanie had seen the results of untamed aggression in her own life and slowly learned how to prevent it. Growing up, her parents were always angry with each other. She hoped that they would divorce but they stayed together and just kept on fighting. She vowed that her life would be different:
“I couldn’t wait to move out. Over the years I broke off so many relationships that could have worked, but I was afraid of ending up just like my parents. At 42, after years of therapy, I finally felt secure and strong enough to take the plunge. Now, almost every day since I got married, I wake up and make a conscious decision to focus on the positives in my relationship. And if I have to fight, I fight fair.”
Whether it is gender baiting, childish competition or locker room humor, the hurt feelings cut deep both ways. And have lasting effects. What follows are a set of six verbal tools that can help your conversations – and your relationship – get back on the right track.
1. All couples get angry and have arguments. During these difficult times you can minimize emotional overload if you focus only on the specific subject at hand. Don’t blame your partner or get defensive. Take some personal responsibility for what’s going on and be willing to negotiate a compromise.
2. Emotional flooding, a diffuse physiological arousal whereby several body systems are mobilized, often occurs in a crisis. This process is activated in a relationship when tensions are high and communication stalls. It becomes difficult to listen, to think clearly or to resolve disagreements. Developing skills to soothe yourself and calm your partner can help minimize the buildup of negative feelings and resentments.
3. In the midst of a heated argument, any one of these phrases would be welcomed by a partner who is feeling misunderstood: I might be wrong; stay with me and don’t withdraw; I see my part in all of this; let’s find our common ground; I do love you and we’ll work this out.
4. Most arguments are generally less emotionally painful and destructive if the couple has a reserve of shared positive feelings and interactions. If you characteristically turn toward rather than away from each other, the accumulated goodwill provides a cushioning effect. You can draw from this emergency supply of affection in times of stress or conflict.
5. To build emotional dividends, try something as simple as connecting daily. You can leave your partner an affectionate text message or express genuine appreciation for a kind gesture.
6. Compose a list of what you most value about each other and make sure it reflects positive characteristics you admire. Is your partner intelligent, generous, energetic, supportive, adventurous, calm, dependable or loving? At least once a week, share one item from your list and give an example that illustrates how you feel.
So don’t make it a question of who can call who what, where to draw the line or who can cross it. Get more practice talking courteously with your partner about differences. Be responsive and create a comfortable and safe place so that your discussions – and even your conflicts – will be open and honest. As you listen with intention and respond with respect, you send a most powerful statement of how much you really care.
© Her Mentor Center, 2007
Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. & Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. are co-founders of http://www.HermentorCenter.com, a website for midlife women and http://www.NourishingRelationships.Blogspot.com, a Blog for the Sandwich Generation. They are authors of a forthcoming book about Baby Boomers’ family relationships and publish a free newsletter, Stepping Stones, through their website. As psychotherapists, they have over 40 years of collective private practice experience.
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