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If you've been in a relationship longer than two months, you know there are "hot spots" that must be carefully navigated around. These "hot spots," rather than something to be completely avoided, can be opportunities though. A recent counseling session illustrated this point.
"You didn't call me when you said you would," Karla said firmly to her husband. \
"What's the big deal?" James asked, obviously irritated.
Karla looked down, noting her husband's frustration. He shook his head in disbelief, muttering about his wife's sensitivity.
"She's over-reacting!" he implored.
"Maybe so," I said to James, empathizing with his frustration. "She may be overreacting to this situation, but we need to find out what is behind her reaction."
Calming James down, and encouraging him to be "gently inquisitive," (asking her what prompted her overreaction) was no small feat. He was understandably annoyed when his wife reacted strongly to what he considered to be a trivial matter.
Looking to James and Karla, I shared what I've come to realize from thousands of hours of couple's counseling.
"Small matters can become big issues very quickly," I said. "Where there's a spark, there's often a fire under the surface."
I explored my theory with Karla by encouraging James to be "gently inquisitive." Being inquisitive requires that we put aside our annoyance and be truly curious about what has caused the reaction. We must truly care and genuinely seek to understand why our mate is so upset.
"Okay," James began, still obviously annoyed. "What is the big deal about me forgetting to call you?"
Karla rolled her eyes, as I encouraged her to respond to him. "He's trying," I coaxed.
"Okay," she said. "I'll tell you. I've been feeling insecure in our marriage for the past several months. I feel a distance growing between us, and a phone call from you will help me feel that you still really care for me."
"But you know I care for you," James said, exasperated.
"No," she said firmly. "Actually I don't. I've been feeling very insecure the past several months. I'm not sure why, but my insecurity has been growing. Then when I get the feeling I'm bothering you by telling you about my insecurities, I feel even more insecure."
James started to settle down. Karla had tears in her eyes as she shared these vulnerable feelings. He reached out to grab her hand, as both shared a sensitive moment. They had navigated a sensitive issue, and James knew now more than he knew moments earlier. He could now choose to help Karla feel more secure, which would cause her to react less to James' actions. Together they could repair a challenging situation.
Every couple experiences these "hot spots" in their relationship. While it is tempting to ignore them, wishing they would disappear, the wise couple leans into them, learning more about their mates and repairing underlying wounds. Here are a few additional considerations.
One, behind every spark is a fire that needs to be put out. Recognize "hot spots" as signals that there is fire beneath the surface. Each of these "fires" is a wound that needs attention. Denying them will NOT make them go away.
Two, every spark is an opportunity to heal a wound. Rather than viewing these situations with disgust, see them as signals to be attended to. Lean into them, using "gentle inquisitiveness" to learn more about your mate.
Three, make it safe to talk about these wounds. These wounds may be from your mate's past, or they may be something occurring in your relationship today. Encourage your mate to share their feelings so you can learn more about him/ her.
Finally, be part of a healing process. Carefully seeking information and a gentle touch will do much to heal an old wound. Let your mate know you want to repair anything that might be broken in your relationship. Exhibit an attitude of humility and caring.
In many ways there is no such thing as an "overreaction"—only a signal indicating there is some area of vulnerability needing to be discussed. What are the some of the "hot spots" in your marriage? How do you tend to handle them?
Where do you need to express "gentle inquisitiveness?" Please send your responses to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com and visit my website at www.TheMarriageRecoveryCenter.com.
Originally posted December 7, 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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