When was last time we were in a fight with your partner?
When was last time you seriously sat down afterwards and examined what actually happened when the dust has settled?
Was the fight actually about what you thought you were fighting over?
Conflicts in relationships have a habit of gaining a life of their own and exploding out of proportion and leaving the partners bewildered and hurt.
I have been there myself and many of my clients have certainly been there.
To be real…. I am not immune to having conflicts with my wife…
When I sit down with my couples-clients , I would usually ask the couple to retell their version of events to me.
Obviously, their stories would be somewhat different to each other’s stories but it would go something like this:
“She said this…….”
“Then I said this…”
“Then she said this…….”
“I got mad…. She started yelling and I walked away…..” or the other way round….. or it just becomes a screaming match.
A brief anatomy of an argument: Loss of awareness
Much of the time I feel like I am watching a re-run of a boxing match. The baffling thing is that neither boxers had any intention of getting into a fight or getting in the ring in the first place. One minute they were sitting down having a coffee, talking, having a good time, and in love with each other then something awful happens.
It is as if some evil entity had taken over their minds and body-snatched them and plonked them in the boxing ring with gloves on their hands. They have been transformed from lovers into mortal enemies who won’t be satisfied till the other party is destroyed. It didn’t matter how much in love they were a minute ago, all is forgotten and their singular purpose now is to fight to the death. They would proceed to trade (verbal) blows like sworn enemies. All their aggression and hate come through every blow !!!!
Before long, there will be tears , screaming , yelling, swearing, name calling , stonewalling and eventually it all ends in desolate silence as both sides retreat to their corners feeling hurt and disoriented by the experience.
Making up is more than a cuddle:
Making up after a fight is great idea but making up is not just about a kiss and a cuddle. For the relationship to heal, the partners need to talk about what triggered them off , gain some understanding and show empathy for the other. If the partners don’t manage to identify and resolve the underlying issue, the hurt and resentment remain. The hurt and resentment accumulate like larva building pressure under the surface of a smoking volcano heading to an imminent eruption . Every subsequent miscommunication , no matter how insignificant becomes a potential trigger to explode quicker and more fierce than the last.
The conflict cycle simply repeats over days or months, it becomes a perpetuate pattern in the way a couple relates to each other. Needless to say, the relationship is not sustainable and it will be a long road to recovery to a healthy relationship.
In couples therapy, we can do many things to sort out the conflict. We can learn to communicate better , we can learn to resolve conflict more effectively , we can learn to express what we want to the other, we can listen more empathically etc…. which we can discuss in later blogs……. BUT would it not be a better way to stop the cycle before it begins?
A better way to handle confict:
Would it not be better to stop the conflicts before they start?
Would it not be better to stop the body-snatching before you and your partner transform into fighting machines???
This is where self-awareness and the ability to examine your emotions deeper come into play. Each partner needs to learn to recognise and contain the base emotion that is driving the conflict.
The base emotional driver is what sparks the anger , once anger takes hold in a conflict , we literally lose our higher brain function. In conflict we lose our cognitive abilities, we lose our ability to reason and switch to fight mode. It triggers the fight/flight/freeze response. ( we will examine this more closely with subsequent blogs)
If you like to learn, it might be quite a foreign process to you. In fact , a lot of my male clients actually tell me that it is a difficult process to master. But once they get the hang of it, it is not as mysterious as it sounds….
Think of this process as learning to read the gauges on the dashboard of your car, except the gauges point to emotional elements that are less tangible than oil level and temperature. Nevertheless, once you learn to read the gauges you learn to read your thoughts and emotions. Being able to read your own thoughts and emotions allows you the space to step back and have a better chance of stopping the conflict from escalating.
Recognising anger : reading the master alarm
Think back the last time you had a fight with your spouse. You would most likely remember that you felt ANGRY. The anger was the dominant emotion that you felt throughout the fight. Anger is the obvious and surface emotion.
Anger is like the master alarm or master warning light on the dash of your car.
We need to do a couple of things.
The first is to recognise the master alarm. That is, recognise the anger. If you don’t even know the master alarm is going off, you would probably keep driving and the engine would most likely explode. This is similar to not even realising that you are angry till it is too late, you’ve lost it and your brain is gone. Once anger takes hold, instinct takes over and all you would do is fight.
Turning off the “anger” master alarm:
The second thing is, in order to switch off the master alarm, we need to learn to read the other gauges on the dash to know what is causing the anger-master alarm to go off.
(What is causing the anger is not necessarily what your partner is “doing to you”…. As this would most likely be the response when someone asked what is causing the anger.)
In a car, it could be the temperature , or water gauges that is showing some issues. Obviously , if we see the water is low, or the temperature gauge is rising, and the oil gauge is low, we are heading for engine overheating. These lead to a master alarm going off on your dash.
In terms of our emotions, these gauges are the indicators and signs of other emotions that are the base emotional drivers of the anger. These emotions are driving anger towards losing control that will lead to a fight.
What is anger ?
Anger is the emotion that tells us to defend ourselves at all costs.
Think of the screaming and fighting as the physical behaviour that you see on the surface.
Then the anger is what is fuelling the behaviour.
But it is the other emotions underneath that is driving the anger that drives the conflict.
I think so often we don’t have the skills to identify what is the emotional driver of the conflict. Often, we have not learnt because our parents have not modelled for us what emotional awareness looks like.
Culturally, as guys many of us have been conditioned to ignore our feelings. We have been told over and over again to be tough.
We learnt being “tough” means to not let anything hurt us. This is not possible. The truth is we feel pain and hurt, but we have learnt to ignore , bury , and suppress emotional pain , as well as other emotions as a coping mechanism to not show pain and hurt.
This is because pain and hurt is at the base of anger. Again, the emotion of anger is like the master switch to turn our defences on. Anger is the trigger to defend and fight in order to protect ourselves.
The dysfunctional learnt way to deal with anger:
But many other emotions such as feeling neglect , ignored , dismissed , feeling violated , feeling used are some of the common causes of anger.
We have also learnt to suppress these other emotions because these other emotions are the actual drivers of the emotion of pain.
We suppress and ignore them in order to avoid being labelled “wuss” or “sissy” or “pussy”.. you know what I am getting at.
Overtime , as we ignore our emotions long enough, we lose our abilities to read the emotional gauges on the dashboard. We have no idea when anger is building, because we are not keeping an eye on the other gauges that tell us something is building towards anger. By the time we realise it, it is too late. This is also true for other emotions as well. For most of us, it is difficult to even identify what we feel emotionally.
Even though we can suppress and ignore many emotions , anger eventually finds its way to manifest itself whether you are aware of it or not. Anger is actually our God given mechanism to survive. But most of the time we have not learnt how to read it and turn it off.
The key is not to suppress anger, but to know anger, recognise it and contain it. Part of the key is to learn to recognise other emotions that are fuelling the anger.
Recognising emotions : Emotional awareness
Part of the counselling process with many of my clients is to help them identify what the emotions actually feel like. Emotions have different components, it could be with the thoughts that go with the emotions and it could also be the physical sensations that go with the emotions.
The thoughts and physical sensations are the other gauges that we need to learn to read and interpret and name the emotions that they represent.
There is an old saying in psychotherapy about emotions, that is to “name it to tame it”. For example, anger could be accompanied by tense muscles, increase heart rate, deeper breathing, clinching jaws , the rush of adrenaline, the readiness to fight ; while anxiety could go with raising heart , stomach churn , dry mouth , tight chest etc.
Recognising thoughts : Thought awareness
The thoughts or words that we think about before and during a fight are also indicators of our emotions.
Often I would ask my clients how they feel , and they say something like, “I just don’t think it is right for her to do that do me”.
So, what emotions do these words actually represent? If you think it is not right that someone is doing something to you, depending on the circumstances you could possibly be feeling injustice , or unfairness. We will discuss more later.
Just pay more attention to your thoughts when you are not fighting. Slow down , be aware of your thoughts and think about what emotions you could possibly be feeling.
Soon you might learn to match up the thoughts you are having to the emotions that you are feeling.
Taming emotions: “Name it to tame it”
Once you can identify an emotion, eg anger , you can actually start to say to yourself to slow down, take some deep breaths , and actually express how you feel.
But expressing how you feel is not the be all and end all of the process.
It takes both parties to engage in a process where both parties can express how they feel without being shut down, and without being defensive. (Again, this is another topic for another blog)
For now, gaining self awareness is the first step.
At least now you can say to your partner , “Can we stop and talk things over, I am feeling “whatever”, and I think you might be feeling angry because I said (this)…..”. Which is a step towards disarming both sides and create opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation.
Other factors that affect our ability to read the emotional gauges :
In some families, talking about emotions is just not the thing to do.
In some families where there is mental illness. Mental illnesses may reduce the parent’s capacity to feel and perceive emotions. This in turn impedes our growth in our ability to have emotional awareness. Sometimes we also refer to emotional awareness as a component of EQ , emotional intelligence quotient.
An Asian perspective:
In certain cultures such as mine, the Asian culture, talking about emotions is just not the thing to do. Many of my Asian clients and myself included simply have learnt to not talk about how we feel.
Sometimes as Asians , we are taught to obey our elders. Unfortunately with this rule also goes the “we cannot get angry at your parents” rule. To get angry at your parents is to be disrespectful and there would be consequences. Therefore, we learn to associate angry as being bad. So we learn to suppress , ignore or displace our anger elsewhere.
Often we might even feel guilty and shame for feeling anger towards an elder , a pastor or someone in authority. Shame and guilt are powerful emotions that will suppress anger.
On a side note , if you suppress anger enough it would eventually have to go somewhere. There is a school of thought that unexpressed anger eventually turns inward and result in depression. True or not, suppression is not healthy.
As Christians, sometimes we are taught that anger is a sin. Therefore, we suppress anger at all costs because it is a sin. Quite a misconception. Rather, we need to recognise it, address the issue and the cause with the other party. As the proverb say , “don’t let the sun go down on your anger”.
These are some of the things that I talk to my clients about to help them understand themselves better in order to build better relationships , and to cope better with unpleasant emotions. In fact, it is often the base of much of what goes in therapy.
Taking a closer look when you lose your head : an example
Let’s take a look at a scenario as an example.
Think back to the last fight you had.
Take it back another step.
Ask yourself what was the anger actually about?
You might say, it was because your spouse said something or did something ? For example, a classic example could be your wife was telling you how to drive or “you are driving too fast”.
I would ask you, what was so bad about your wife telling you to slow down?
Logically, your wife is just concerned about safety.
BUT you might say that you just hate it when she is bossing you around or telling you what to you.
Think what the thought “I just hate it when she tells me what to do” actually means? You are describing a thought , and what other emotion does this thought convey? Especially, the “she tells me what to do” bit? ….You are hearing a criticism.
“Someone telling you what to do” could possibly mean you feel someone is criticising you or trying to control you and you are losing your freedom. It could also mean that you hear your wife telling you that you are not a component driver, even though it is not her exact words.
If you think that your wife is saying “you are not a component driver”, you might feel that she is saying to you that you are not good enough. To feel “I am not good enough” carries shame. Shame hurts.
In a fraction of a second after hearing it , you might have even felt certain physical sensations. For example, heart rate increase , you might have started to clinch your teeth , or your body is feeling agitation. Your body is heading towards anger and is getting ready to fight.
You could possibly have tried to hold your tongue and not say anything, but somehow, something comes out of your mouth and it might have just triggered another fight.
So, part of the answer to stopping the imminent conflict starts with knowing yourself.
Getting to know yourself : gaining self awareness
Just stop for a second , be honest with yourself and score yourself out of 10 (0 being having no idea , 10 being total awareness) :
- How aware are you of your anger building?
- How well do you know of the signs that tell you that you are angry? What are they?
- How aware are you of your base emotions? Jealousy , neglect , abandonment, criticism, unworthiness…etc
- How aware of the thoughts that tell you about your emotions?
- How aware are you of the triggers that set you off?
I don’t believe any human could score themselves 10 out of 10 for all these items.
But whatever you scored , it would give you an idea of which area needs some attention in order to improve self awareness.
In future blogs we will continue our exploration of emotions in relationships , conflict in relationships and just about everything else that has to do with build a stronger and more loving relationship.
Just to sum up……..
- Learning self awareness is a good initial step to take in stopping the conflict cycle in relationship.
- Gaining self awareness to stop fighting in a relationship sounds complicated and convoluted but you can learn how to do it…
- Learning self awareness is like learning to read the emotional gauges that give you clues as to what is happening in your heart and in your head.
- The gauges could be in the form of thoughts and physical sensations.
- Thoughts and physical sensations give you clues as to what emotions you are experiencing.
- There are often other base emotions that is fuelling the anger in a fight.
- It is a difficult process to master, especially if you have never been taught.
- It will take time to learn to be self aware.
- GET some professional help with a counsellor.
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