For couples that are having difficulty, it can be hard to keep track of whose emotions and thoughts are whose. “When she looks at me like that I know she hates me because I am a failure.” That is an idea about another person’s thought and emotion. All based on a look. It’s hard enough to manage one’s own emotions and thoughts, let alone be responsible for someone else’s. here are some tools for getting untangled. These are all exercises to do on your own. The reason for that is because when couples are feeling stuck, exercises can often end up just being another thing to be angry about. So do these yourself. You can leave them conveniently lying around for your partner to find, but don’t bug them to do it because it’ll probably just end up being another power struggle.
For a week, every time something happens with your partner that upsets you, write a description of what happened. This is only for you to see. It isn’t a journal where you explore your ideas or thoughts, it is a description. A description means you write only what happened. Be as detailed as you can. “She said ‘You don’t ever do the dishes.’ She was standing by the sink. She was holding a cup.” Be absolutely objective. No judgements, predictions or opinions. Don’t write “She looked really angry,” that is a judgement. You can write “They narrowed their eyes, their face was red.” Include a description of your emotions “I felt very angry” or sensations “My stomach was in knots”. If you do it every time, you will get better at describing what is happening in the moment and you will be less prone to attribute motivations or emotions to your partner.
The Right Bucket
Take a piece of paper and divide it into four squares. Label the left hand column ME. Label the right hand column with your partners name. Label the top row SAID. Label the bottom row THOUGHT/FELT. Now you have four rectangles, corresponding to what you said, what you thought or felt, what your partner said and what your partner thought or felt.
Now, think about the last time you had a fight.
1. What did you say? Write that in the rectangle that is for ME/SAID Top left).
2. Now write what you felt/thought in the section for ME/THOUGHT&FELT (Bottom left). Make sure to leave a little room.
3. Write what your partner said in the top right hand corner.
4. Go back and look at the ‘my partner SAID’ corner. Did they SAY that? If the conversation had been taped and you played it back now would you hear your partner say those things? Cross out anything that you aren’t 100% sure your partner said. Did she really say you never tell the truth or did she say, “You are lying”. As you cross out and adjust see if you need to write something new in the ME/FELT&THOUGHT; “When she accused me of lying, I felt worried that she only sees the bad in me.”
5. Now, go to the corner that represents what your partner thought or felt (Bottom right). Write what they were thinking or feeling. Take a deep breath. How do you know that’s what they thought or felt? Refer back to the ‘partner SAID’ quadrant (top right). Is it there? Did they say they hate you? Did they say you are lazy? If it isn’t there, then you don’t know it. You inferred it. It’s in the wrong place. It’s a thought or a feeling you had about what they were thinking or feeling; it may be a correct thought or an incorrect thought but that’s what it is, your thought or feeling. That goes in the lower left hand column.
Its Purple Hat Day!
If I told you that today is purple hat day (and if you believed me) you would notice lots of purple hats as you walked around your town or city even if today is just a regular-old-hat day. That’s called confirmation bias; we find what we expect to find in the world. When we are fighting we tend to ‘look for trouble.,’ and then when we spot it we feel confirmed in our outlook. People tend to do some combination of the following; catastrophize, label, all-or-nothing, emotional reasoning. All these ways of thinking tend to make our emotional state worse and our conflict more intense
Catastrophizing is when we think the world is ending because something has gone wrong.
Labeling is when we put a negative label (‘lazy’, ‘mean’, ‘dumb’) on ourself or our partner because we are upset.
All-or-nothing thinking is when we say my partner “always makes things harder” or “they never do the laundry.”
Emotional reasoning is when we have a bad feeling and start seeing causes for it in the world. A good example is worry. If I feel worried, I may decide that my partner is thinking about leaving me, because that is such a scary idea. It explains why I am feeling so scared.
After your next argument give yourself a treat for every instance of you indulging in one of these four ways of thinking. Do that a few times and you’ll start to notice them as they are happening. Then you will be in a better place to challenge them when they come up.
In the course of a long relationship couples often lose track of one another’s interests, hopes, dreams. Do you know your partner’s biggest fear? Her greatest disappointment? What book made a big impression on him as a kid? Does your partner feel confident that you know?
One of the great satisfactions of being in a couple is feeling like your partner really knows you. Here are a bunch of questions that you can ask your partner to help reconnect.
Most couples fight. Some ways of fighting are more destructive.
Here’s a video that explains the four common, destructive things couples do in a fight and some basic ways to avoid doing them. After, you can take the quiz below.
Time outs. Time outs can be a good tool when a couple’s fights get very unpleasant or aggressive. A timeout is different than walking away; it requires some preparation together. Here is a guide to doing time-outs effectively with a handy-dandy cut out to put on the refrigerator or a bulletin board. Print it out and read through it together with your partner.