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My computer froze the other day. With several programs running simultaneously, it was like my computer suddenly said, "Stop everything. I'm not doing anything more."
The same thing happened with my wife Christie and I as we were having a heated conversation. Just as I was getting amped up to press my point, she stopped and said, "I'm taking a time out. This issue is not worth arguing about. Let's talk about it again in a few minutes when we've both settled down."
At first I was stunned. I wanted to press in, push on and pressure her to see things my way. Then, stepping back, I could see the wisdom of her actions. While we don't need to do this very often, this act of stepping back and resetting has proven invaluable in our marriage.
The technique proved helpful with a couple I was working with in counseling as well.
"I can't stand how he thinks he's always right," Darlene said to me, referring to her husband Dennis. He sat close by, squirming and turning away from her and the accusation. "He thinks he can spend time any way he wants with his friends, and I have no say in the matter."
"Darlene," I said firmly. "Did you notice Dennis' reaction to your accusation?"
"I don't really care about his reaction," she said angrily. "He's the one who is usually pushing his opinions on me, and I think you ought to be confronting him."
"I'll watch for that," I said reassuringly. "But now I want you to notice your body posture, the tone in your voice and the accusation you made. They won't help you get Dennis' attention and encourage him to cooperate with you, which is what I think you want."
"You're right," Darlene said. "I need to step back and reset. Give me a minute."
With that Darlene pulled a stick of gum out of her purse, motioned for me to give her a minute, as I encouraged her decision to take a time out.
"We need to approach each other from a place of calm, not agitation," I told both of them. "We need to make sure our hearts are in the right place, and then we must make statements about our feelings and needs and not accusations or judgments. We may need to stop, reset and try again if we get too amped when talking about a potentially heated topic."
"I'm ready to try again," Darlene said. Turning to Dennis, she asked if she could talk to him again about some feelings she had been having in their marriage. He encouraged her to share, but cautioned her against making any statements that would be accusatory. She agreed.
"Dennis," she began slowly. "I feel insignificant and intimidated when you tell me how you're going to spend your time with your friends. I'd like to be considered about those things and how they impact our time together."
I nodded my head in approval as Dennis looked at her intently.
"I understand your feelings, Darlene," he said. "I know I spend a lot of time hunting and fishing and get pretty opinionated about that, and that probably doesn't feel very good to you. I haven't taken your feelings into consideration."
"No, you haven't," Darlene said. "I haven't felt free to share my feelings."
I watched as Darlene spoke respectfully to Dennis, and how Dennis now received what she was saying. The tension in the room was gone after she reset and tried her approach again.
"I don't want to push to get my way, Darlene and will listen to your thoughts about how much of my free time I spend with them."
"Thanks," she said lovingly.
I smiled at both of them as they had successfully navigated away from a loaded situation, finding a way to truly connect to one another. Let's consider what happened and what we can learn from them.
First, we don't listen effectively when agitated. While we desperately want to share our opinions and judgments when angry, these rarely land well with our mates. Telling our mates exactly what we think rarely creates an environment where they want to be vulnerable with us, let alone cooperate with us. On the other hand, calm, clear and concise communication free from judgments is conducive to openness and sharing.
Second, accusations, judgments and opinions are likely to create an adversarial and agitated situation. No one wants to be told something critical, especially if the tone and words are biting. We recoil from such conversation or worse, strike back. Accusations are usually exaggerated, often hurtful and will damage a relationship.
The Apostle Timothy, in talking about leadership, said we must be "temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money." (I Timothy 3: 2) Note how these qualities are not likely to exist in an atmosphere of hostility or confrontation.
Third, we must learn to step back, reset and try again. When tempted to make accusations, or speak from a place of agitation, it is best to step back, calm down and reset. When we calm ourselves down we're far less likely to overwhelm our mate.
Fourth, we can then share our concerns from a position of feelings and needs, not demands. Learning to speak from our most vulnerable self, our feelings, we're more likely to maintain emotional contact with our mate. Our mate is more likely to feel compassion and empathy for us when we speak from our feelings.
Finally, cooperation is effective in creating relationship. Having shared our feelings, and elicited empathy, our mate is more inclined to brainstorm mutually satisfying solutions to our problems. We become a team facing a problem together, rather than as adversaries.
Relationships can be much more effective if you have a reset button you can use when things get tense. If you don't have one, agree with your mate that you will create one to use anytime things heat up. Let me know how these strategies work with you and your mate. Please send your responses to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com and visit my website at www.TheMarriageRecoveryCenter.com.
September 28, 2010
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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