Guest post by Dr Geoff Arnold
Good Sailors make their Observations
The previous article on marriage and long-term relationships followed the theme of ‘Keeping the Beautiful Things Beautiful’, with a focus on ideas for keeping relationships loving. But what about those times when the relationship feels anything but ‘beautiful’?
When there’s tension and arguments, the problem isn’t necessarily that there is a disagreement taking place. It is more likely to do with the way that the disagreement unfolds. Arguments commonly do ‘get a life of their own’ and so the real challenge is to figure out the pattern or patterns of how this occurs. So, the first thing to do might be to start observing the triggers and signs – in other words, the specific things that are happening when an honest disagreement is turning into an unnecessary or unhelpful squabble.
Check the Barometer and Change your Sails Sufficiently Early
There are ‘points of departure’ from a conversation where things are somehow escalating into ‘a fight’. It might be a gradual process but at some critical points there is a ‘rise in temperature’, or put conversely, a need for calming down.
Although most couples are unaware of it, heart rates and blood pressures do commonly rise at this stage when discussions are beginning to fall apart. This can be a time to put into practice some of those relaxation techniques that Naomi has been sharing with you on the blog (slow the breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mental imagery, meditative calming, etc).
Steer towards the Calmer Waters
It’s not necessary to run for the ‘escape hatches’ just because a heart rate has increased, but in some cases where the tension is escalating towards an unresolvable conflict, it may be necessary to take a ‘time-out’. This can be done either early to calm yourself down or at a later stage when things are somehow degenerating. Everybody likes to be treated with respect, so the important thing here is not to be dismissive – Assure your partner that you are going to return to the discussion and that you will listen to their concerns.
Sometimes, depending on the issue and how things are developing, it can help to leave it alone for that day or two, and then do what you can in the meantime to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes things might settle in intensity during that space of time (especially if both trying to ‘de-escalate’), sometimes even the whole issue can ‘blow over’. And sometimes not. There’s no guarantees only possibilities to explore in sailing the seas, but the buffeting starts with the high winds not the sea.
In most situations of relationship conflict, everyone has a right to a ‘time-out’ of some sort, so unless the situation is an unusual one there is nothing unreasonable or unfair about taking a ‘time-out’. But we can be negotiable – the timing of ‘time-outs’ (when the time-out is taken and for how long) needs a responsible approach from both partners.
Try to Avoid the Centre of the Storm
After the bodily signs have been observed, what are the other signs that can indicate the need for a change in ‘sailing directions’? Although we don’t need a rigid ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude towards rejecting all fighting (there can be such a thing as ‘a good fight’), we are looking here at the more damaging kind of fighting. Some of the common things that can signal the deterioration of a conversation are as follows:
- Active listening gets unplugged. Active listening is where partners are alert to each other’s needs.
- The negative cycle of criticism starts it’s self-defeating course.
- Defensiveness then makes its centre-stage appearance. Defensiveness is where partners feel threatened by criticism, and sometimes say ‘all and anything’ because they feel besieged.
- It is often accompanied by a process called ‘levelling’. Levelling is where both partners take turns trying to bring the other partner down ‘from the ascendency’ or ‘high ground’ above them.
- There’s often no ‘validation’. Validation is where partners demonstrate their understanding of what is being expressed by their partner, although just trying to understand is often very helpful even when ‘getting it wrong’. When there’s no validation there’s often no confirmation of the partner’s good qualities, and no ‘stepping back’ to ask the more important questions than theones that are setting the agenda.
A Question (for soldiers not sailors) to Ask before Charging Ahead
The advice couples occasionally get to ‘select your battles’ with a marriage partner is a way of suggesting that it’s worth differentiating your issues, and perhaps even letting some things pass. The idea of having ‘battles’ is too adversarial for my liking – our partners are not adversaries or ‘opponents’ of any sort and there is no ‘war’ to be won in a loving relationship! But we can think consciously and be discriminative about what we choose to take issue with.
Sometimes just asking oneself the simple question ‘How important is it?’ can calm down your own feelings, but not if used as a way of dismissing (or ‘trivialising’) what another person is saying. When a partner is strongly expressing a point of view then it obviously is important to them, at least in that moment.
But it is also very common for couples to have heated arguments and within a short space of time find themselves unable to even remember what the issue was. So, the question ‘How important is it?’ might have been a good one to ask before getting off course into an argument.
How to Find a Lighthouse
The question ‘How important is it?’ is not a question to impose on another person, but a helpful question to ask oneself. Even then, it is not a case of deciding what is important for another person. People like to be taken seriously – so showing any person empathy (as opposed to condescension) is a great way of showing them respect and love.
Empathy is where we try to put ourselves into another person’s position. We do it by trying to enter into their world, listening for their feelings without judging. Feelings are not opinions, and there’s nothing wrong with having human feelings! Empathy is where many people experience some kind of therapeutic relief. Empathy alone is often sufficient to dissolve (to some degree) another person’s sense of pain, hurt or alienation.
So empathy is about ‘relating’ not necessarily ‘agreeing’. Done well it makes another person feel prized and cared for. It is a loving gift to offer your partner, and it is perhaps the most reliable sigh that a genuine dialogue is taking place. Empathy is like the sailors lighthouse, throwing light on the darker patches of water and illuminating the better pathways to follow.
Good Sailors are Optimistic, Realistic and Fun-loving
Most long-term relationships have their ‘ups and downs’ so the main point of this article has been to suggest the kind of flexibility that can move in and around conflict without trying to drive a way straight through it. Soldiers march in step and straight lines, sailors keep their hands on the helm and change their tack. They keep an open mind, adapt and aren’t afraid of being creative or making mistakes as they learn how to undertake voyagers. It really needs to be emphasised that this kind of flexibility in relationships is not an easy achievement. It takes a lot of effort and possibly years of practice.
And some negativity in a marriage is not necessarily a bad thing. The artificiality or perfectionism of always being positive and happy is inevitably toxic, and the only true way of ‘keeping the beautiful things beautiful’ in a long-term relationship is to be authentic – allowing yourself and your partner to be a ‘real’ person with all that comes with being a real person. There’s also no sure-fire advice that marriage educators or couples counsellors can give to guarantee a safe passage for all the various kinds of situations couples face. Each person’s experience of a relationship is his or her own.
But there are some generalised ways of describing healthy relationships and suggesting the kinds of attitudes that are more likely to be helpful when conflict emerges! In troubled waters, good sailors try to maintain the sense of ‘together-ness’ of everybody on board. Marriage, in other words, is a commitment to ‘we’ not ‘I’. Good sailors are also optimistic types but realistic about the challenges of sailing in heavy weather. They continue to sail because they never lose sight of the beautiful things to be experienced for themselves and others on board. They don’t quit easily when things are getting rough and know how to make things enjoyable for themselves and others at other times. They see challenges where others see difficulties and they make adjustments to their courses ‘as they go’.
GUEST WRITER’S BIO
Dr Geoffrey Arnold is an experienced counsellor who has worked with people with anxiety and depression issues (including ‘at-risk’ of suicide), grief, and general adjustment to life’s challenges. He is also a marriage counsellor and educator. He has a multidisciplinary PHD in education, philosophy, psychology and theology that focused on the big topic of ‘wisdom’.
To me, Dr Arnold goes by the name of Dad, Dadsie, Daddy, or Daddo. He is my rock. The person who I’ve always been able to rely on. The person who has been my guiding light through every crisis, small or large, that I’ve ever experienced. He is the most caring and giving person I have ever met. The first person to help loved ones, and strangers, who are experiencing difficulty. The ultimate advocate for the underdog. He has saved more lives than he will ever know. He is my hero, in every sense of the word. I’m so happy to be able to share some of his knowledge with you on my blog.