Watching my clothes tumbling around in the dryer after a good washing reminded me of a discussion I recently had with a couple attempting to reconcile after yet another separation. It was their "fourth or fifth separation," and they were suffering the effects of their rollercoaster relationship and subsequent emotional intensity.
"We're weary," John said to me, his wife Kristine sitting close to him. "We both feel beat up and can hardly think straight."
Sadness etched in the creases of Kristine's face.
"I love John," she said slowly, "but this is really taking a toll on me. We fight, breakup, and then a few days later we makeup and get back together. It's a rollercoaster."
This was the second marriage for both Kristine and John, and they had an intense desire to make this marriage work. Yet, with patterns of fighting, distancing and then making up, they were suffering from what I describe as "emotional hangover"—where intense, ongoing feelings are experienced over a prolonged period, creating confusion and emotional overload.
"I really love Kristine," John added. "But man, we just can't seem to stop going at it. We have these wonderful periods of loving actions toward each other, but when we talk about her kids or my kids, or money we spend on our kids, things explode."
"We should be able to talk about these things without explosions, though," Kristine noted. "Why can't we deal with things like normal people?"
"Listen folks," I said. "Let's look at all the pieces and see if we can find sobriety for your emotional hangover, okay?"
"Sounds good to me," John stated firmly. "I don't like my head spinning like this."
I shared with John and Kristine some principles I've written about extensively in my book, 10 Lifesavers for Every Couple. We discussed how our brains need a rest from intensity. (Note how God instituted the Sabbath as a time of rest.) Specifically, I suggested the following:
First, any "cycling" relationship means there are patterns that must be understood. You must stop doing the same things and expecting different results. Step back, reflect and be honest about what is happening in the relationship. Be willing to look at the matter as objectively as possible. While making up is enjoyable, breaking up creates a shaking up, and this takes an incredible toll over time. Pray for wisdom to understand the dysfunction you, and your mate, bring to this destructive dance.
Second, create a safe container to discuss volatile topics. Every couple has "raw spots"—topics that are emotion-laden and must be approached with care. John and Kristine mentioned two topics—children and money—that had extra emotion attached to them, where they needed to approach with caution We explored how a "safe container" meant they would manage their emotions, listen carefully to each other, and discuss these topics slowly and lovingly.
Third, value each other's point of view. There is rarely a "right" or "wrong" way of seeing things, and healthy couples know it is important to "agree to disagree." However, if we truly value and understand our mate's point of view, chances are good that we will find a place of agreement.
Fourth, be gently inquisitive. Be an explorer, seeking to understand this new terrain—the mind of your mate. Ask why they see things the way they do, and seek to fully understand why they see what they see and believe what they believe. This, by the way, is very disarming and draws your mate closer to you.
Firth, seek places of agreement. Rather than taking on a win/ lose mentality, stretch yourself to find places of agreement. Look for common ground, rather than focusing on where you disagree. Shifting to the "common ground mindset" brings you together, and this brings healing.
Sixth, agree that you are both ‘normal,' and together you must find a way to recover from these emotional hangovers. Agree you will respect the fact that you have sensitive issues, needing extra care and attention. Together, and perhaps with a trained professional, you will seek ways to talk about these loaded topics without allowing your emotions to become unmanageable.
Finally, take time out for pleasure and rest. We all need a break from emotional intensity. We must cultivate the ability to set issues aside. This goes against the grain of those who want to "hammer out issues." Unfortunately, when we "hammer out issues" someone usually gets hurt. Don't be afraid to set topics aside to cool things down. Take a break from it all to simply value each other and the strengths that drew you to one another in the first place.
Are you experiencing an emotional hangover? Do you sometimes feel as though your mind could fly into little bits when fighting with your mate? We'd love to hear from you. Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at TheRelationshipDoctor@Gmail.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center and my Marriage Intensives on my website. You'll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.
Originally published February 15, 2011.
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 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 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.