Several years ago I worked with a client I'll call "Vanessa" who described herself this way:
"I'm a highly reactive and outspoken person with my partner. If he does something that annoys me, I have no filter between my irritated reaction and the words that come spewing out of my mouth. As a result, we fight a lot. I attack, he defends, and we're off and running, escalating in volume and expression until words are said that leave both of us hurt and shaken. Can you help?"
Vanessa was describing a common pattern that causes couples to argue: irritation, attack, defense, escalation. I shared with her that if she wants the arguing to stop and her husband to hear what she was trying to express, she would need to learn to curb her reactivity. At first it seemed like an impossible task. She had always, for as far back as she could remember, acted impulsively on her irritation. Could she break a lifelong habit? She had to try. She had to learn not to react and speak every time she felt irritated.
She had to learn the one skill that would preserve their harmony: Hold her tongue. Zip her lip. Snap her trap.
Vanessa was a dedicated client and she addressed her reactivity from all angles:
- Physically (she learned that certain foods and substances exacerbated her irritation and negated her ability not to react to it)
- Emotionally (she needed to make sure that she spent time processing her feelings every day so that they didn't bubble over onto her partner)
- Spiritually (she developed a mindfulness practice to help her create a witness-self so that she wasn't a victim to every feeling that coursed through her body)
But mostly she set her intention and made a solemn promise to herself that, if she felt the surge of negative energy crawling up her body like a thousand ants, she would hold her tongue. At times it felt like a Herculean effort, as if her body was going to volcanically explode unless she allowed the words to spew forth. But she stayed quiet, breathed, walked away, and did whatever she needed to do until the big, reactive feelings passed.
This skill is so simple to understand and yet incredibly difficult to execute. I've shared this suggestion with hundreds of clients and the results are always the same: less arguing, more harmony, less tension, more connection. The bottom line is that when you express yourself from a place of reactivity the chances of the other person hearing you are slim to none.
It's a human and knee-jerk reaction to defend or counter-attack if you feel attacked, and if you chart your experience with your partner you'll probably see the pattern: you attack, your partner defends, the arguing begins. But if you wait until the inner storm passes and you communicate from a centered and loving place, the other person can hear you. And you may also realize that the irritation had nothing to do with your partner and so there's nothing that you actually need to express!
Vanessa now reports that she and her husband rarely argue these days. If one of them is triggered, they know that they need to take a break and resume the conversation when the reactivity has settled and they can actually hear each other with a calm body and open heart.
Again, this isn't about silencing yourself if something is truly bothering you in your relationship, but about speaking in a way and at a time when the other person can hear you.
So next time you feel your telltale signs of being triggered—skin-crawling sensations of irritation, tight chest of anger, butterfly belly of wounded pain—take a breath, count to ten, then take another breath. Do whatever you need to do to hold your tongue.
Like all new practices, it's difficult at first, but over time you'll start to re-wire your brain so that you create a new habit and it becomes almost effortless. And then watch the garden of your relationship flourish in the fresh soil of a positive environment.
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