Let’s Talk About Our Relationship– Part I

Those are words that, in comedy, strike terror to the hearts of guys confronted with girlfriends. It’s a stereotype, true: there are probably gay men who are uneasy if their partners say the same thing, and we can spread the joy to all intimate relationships.

So first of all, let’s remember that there are small “r” relationships and capital R Relationships. There are communication principles that apply to all relationships, but most people feel there’s a lot more riding on the one with a spouse or significant other.

What are some communication– without blowing up– basics? I’m always interested when a couple doesn’t know about time outs. It’s the basic idea that once you get too mad, the argument isn’t going to go anywhere but downhill. So you take a break. I’m also interested when couples intuitively, or from experience, know about when and how to take a time out. “I’m too mad to talk sense right now, I’ll be back in an  hour.”

Anger management teachers will tell you that once your flight or fight response dumps the chemicals into your system, the best part of your brain for rational thinking goes off line. Our ancestors who ran up the tree and looked around afterwards passed on their genes. Those who looked around to see what made the sound behind them got eaten. So if you’re fighting mad but at least have enough rational thought left to not get physical, take twenty to ninety minutes to calm down. Pay attention to your internal states, not how mad you are at your partner. Wait until you’re calmer; spend the time out on calming down, not figuring out how to win the argument when you resume.  But before you go, tell your partner when you’ll be back– and keep your word. Otherwise you’re creating an entire separate argument about ducking conflict, running away, not facing up to (whatever it is), and so on. You may have to check back in and admit you’re still too mad, you still need more time, but that’s OK.

Some folks reading this might be saying to themselves, “This is too basic. Everybody knows this.” And I’ve had clients say, in pretty much these words, “What do you think I am, an idiot?” But my response to you is, no, you’re not an idiot– there are some people who hear this for the first time– after all, there’s a first time for everyone, right? You have to start somewhere. The fact that you already know it means precisely the opposite. And there are people who know this at an intellectual level but find it hard to implement in the heat of a big argument with a partner. If you have to have an important argument with your spouse or partner, it’s better to do it when you’re calm than when you’re upset.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in Couples and relationships, happiness, mental health, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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