Communicating effectively will stop the fights
Alan and Di, who had 2 children under 6, were sick of fighting and decided to separate. They agreed to see a counsellor to facilitate the process, believing that having a mediator would reduce the amount of conflict in their discussions.
When the counsellor asked why they had come, they said straight up, “We want to separate while we can still talk to each other civilly. We both think that’s important, so that we can continue to communicate appropriately and respectfully to each other about the children, as they grow up. We both care how this separation will impact on the kids.”
They told the counsellor it was because of the fights they had, the bickering, the arguing, the harsh comments and the quick rise to conflict whenever they had a discussion. He said he hated the arguing but had not been able to find a way to stop it. She said that all she wanted to do was share her feelings with him, but every time she tried, he was defensive and became angry that she was always so negative and critical of him. He felt he was doing his best for her and the children, but she was never satisfied and always complaining.
So they had both had enough of their marriage and decided to part.
Yet Alan didn’t really want to separate, because his values were that he had married for life, and that couples should work on their problems.
And Di didn’t really want to either, because she had come from a broken home and had always said to herself that she would work on her marriage so that her children would not have to suffer the ‘sharing between the parents’, as she had done.
In fact, neither wanted to separate. So how had they come to the decision to do so? It was because they feared the relationship would become so acrimonious that they would be unable to speak civilly with one another in the future, which would make it difficult to make arrangements about the children. So best to separate BEFORE getting to that stage, they thought.
The counsellor used a white board, and drew them the PAIN TIME LINE – which has along it a PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE. And this is what they learned:
We experience pain in the present tense. Every negative emotion is an emotional pain. We really do feel it. And depending on how much adrenalin our body produces, we feel the pain at different intensities – low, medium or high. Take our reaction to an unmet expectation, for example. We feel either disappointment, or irritability, or resentment, depending on how important to us the expectation was, that wasn’t met (or put in another way, how significant the thing was that you thought would happen, and then it didn’t – how things ‘should have been’. This too constitutes an unmet expectation).
Both Alan and Di recognised they had a long list of emotion words that they felt – at different levels of intensity. In the counselling session (which was a safe environment to do so), each one spoke about their hurt feelings without the other one getting defensive or biting back. Hurdle number 1 accomplished then and there – expressing hurt feelings without any comeback.
The counsellor also drew a diagram of 2 volcanoes, to explain how we build up our emotional wounds and then explode, just like a volcano. We say something hurtful, which has an impact on our partner, who then attacks back. Normal stuff. Bad stuff. Because the more hurts we trade, the more worked up we get. (Read here: the more adrenalin our body produces, and the more aroused our nervous system becomes.)
Di and Alan learned that when we become worked up in an argument, something awful happens. We can suddenly remember things in the past that have been hurtful, especially emotional wounds in our relationship. These old hurts get brought up to boost your position in the argument. The thing is, that on a normal day, normal mood, you can think about those same old incidents and NOT feel any pain. Those past issues have been resolved. They are just memories – on a normal day.
But the rotten thing is that TODAY, because you are arguing, your body is flooding with adrenalin (which you identify as emotional hurts) and your brain remembers each pain in exactly the same way as it remembers a smell – by association with an earlier experience. This is the reason that TODAY you suddenly remember when you felt (let’s say) humiliated 2 weeks ago – and 3 months ago and 5 years ago, when a minute ago you were just feeling humiliated by a present tense event. This is the pain in the PAST on the Pain Time Line.
AND THEN we start to fear the FUTURE. We start to imagine that it will always be like this, that we will always argue, and that’s not good for the kids. Or we may not last, and end up divorced. Or (as with Alan and Di) we may not be able to speak civilly to each other, so let’s separate while we can still get on a little bit. The FUTURE is filled with thoughts that start with WHAT IF or MAYBE…..
But we don’t feel things in the past or in the future. We only feel in the present. But our body responds to the images in our head that relate to past or future. So it FEELS like those pictures of the future are real – the pictures are reinforced by the fact that you really do feel an arousal of your nervous system! (By the way, adrenalin felt by the body in the present is STRESS. When adrenalin in produced by negative thoughts of the future, the adrenalin response is called ANXIETY. Anxiety is simply the future tense of stress.. resentment or anger is the emotion that belongs to past tense pain.)
So the counsellor asked – what if they learned skills of communication so that they could resolve present tense emotional wounds. Di and Alan agreed that would be brilliant. So the counsellor explained to them …. If you can resolve present tense pain, then you never have to return to those past tense hurts. You can leave them where they belong – in the past. AND you will not have to be anxious about hurtful communication in the future. Because things don’t happen in the future, they happen in the present. So if there is an emotional wound in the future (and there may not be J) then WHEN it happens, it will be present tense, and you will have the skills to deal with it, to resolve it.
That made sense to the couple and they agreed to have a few sessions to increase their skills of effective communication which can be learned, because those skills ALSO make sense! They had the chance to practise resolving some resentments right there in the counselling room, and they left with the skills to continue the “letting things go” conversations at home. “Letting it go” is about letting the pain go, not necessarily the memory of the incident. We don’t forgive and forget – we resolve and remember.
Would you like to know the outcome of this case?
This couple stayed together and now have 2 more children (twins!). They wrote to me some years later, “Thank you for saving our marriage.” Well actually, they saved it, not me. I simply gave them the clarity and the skills to fix their communication problem. And I can do the same for you. I can help you save your marriage (and it’s up to you whether or not you have more children!)