In the opening scene of “PS. I Love You” Hilary Swank, as Holly, stomps up the stairs to their apartment, followed by her repentant husband, Gerard Butler, as Gerry, begging her to tell him what he did to upset her. After much convoluted venting, Holly finally blurts out that at dinner Gerry had told her mother that she wasn’t ready to have a baby yet. In Holly’s mind this was a taboo subject with Mom. After more bumbling apologies mixed with weak attempts to defend himself Gerry said, “I get nervous around your Mom.” That was a key moment of truth in a chaotic volley of confusing words and raw emotions. Instead of moving in closer to this vulnerable revelation and finding a way to understand and support each other around the important topic of dealing with privacy with family and personal boundaries, Holly and Gerry resolved the fight with makeup sex.
Romantic comedies are such a great way to see the patterns that couples engage in that don’t work. The scene with Holly and Gerry was charming because, despite their blow up, they re-connected and we got to feel inspired by their deep love for each other. And yet, the high divorce rate indicates that love, or great makeup sex, is not enough to sustain relationships over the long haul. I can predict from my own experience working with couples that if nothing were to change in how they relate, within five years Jerry will most likely learn to walk on eggshells to avoid conflict with Holly and she’s likely to feel shut out and distrustful because she doesn’t really know what’s going on with him. Gerry withdraws to protect himself and maintain peace and Holly vents so she can hold onto her values and be heard. If Gerry had not died, and they continued skimming the surface of important topics, this couple might have reached a point of struggling to keep their beautiful connection alive and growing over time. Typically, couples do a few different dances in this pattern of conflict and avoidance, and in the process dampening the richness that their differences can contribute to their union.
Couples are naturally gifted with their own special brand of intimacy and bonding early in their relationship. Emotional and spiritual connection, sexual chemistry, intellectual attraction and companionship and create powerful bonds, especially in the early days of a relationship when both people exalt in the joy of being seen and loved. Differences usually began to show up with couples within the first two of years. This is a natural step in the developmental cycle of relationships. Life contributes to the process by delivering a variety of situations that give us opportunities to express our uniqueness. A key task for couples in this stage is to explore and define “me” while forging their union as “we”. This process of differentiation is where the real work and skill of being in a relationship begins.
The First Step in Forging “We” is “Me” — A Process for Self-Connection
Lets explore a few of the capacities and skills involved in creating a “we” that includes and celebrates “me.”
Understanding how Differences Trigger Reactivity
The process of healthy differentiation means that we have to learn to deal with the anxiety that comes up when we encounter differences. The idea here is to hold steady and regulate our emotions so we can be present to hear our partner’s truth. This is easier said than done, especially when we don’t agree or the message isn’t delivered skillfully. The amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, is wired to look for threats and to react quickly. Even though we are now at the top of the food chain and rarely experience physical danger, the brain processes “social threats” with alarm and releases a flood of chemicals that we experience as distressing body sensations. Depending on our history and behavior patterns, we might react by venting and escalating the situation or by withdrawing and avoiding conflict.
Fortunately, the frontal cortex of our brain is geared toward rational thinking and will be our ally in managing reactivity. The key is to intervene and slow things down by developing a closer relationship with our own body.
- When you feel an intense reaction beginning stop and take a breath.
- Breathe in and exhale slowly three times.
- Pay attention to the sensation of your breath coming and going from start to finish. For some people focusing on an object in the environment helps.
- When you feel calmer, bring your attention to the uncomfortable feeling and notice the sensation in your body. You will most likely notice tension or a contraction in a specific area.
- Continuing to breathe, bring your attention closer to it and deepen your awareness of the feeling.
See if you can name the feeling. The act of naming our feelings involves the frontal cortex of the brain working to make sense of our experience. This is reassuring and calms our nervous system down. If Gerry had done this process and had been able to calmly identify that he was feeling nervous and scared when he blabbed about Holly to her mother, that would likely give him relief and clarity.
The Benefits of Venting
Take the time you need to work with your distressing feelings. I’m a big fan of venting, but please do it privately or with a trusted friend. Writing about what happened and how you feel can be a great way to get it all out. Don’t be nice! Get in touch with what’s real. Then burn those pages or hide your journal in a locked vault. If you need some help identifying a fuller range of feelings, click here for a list.
Be Aware: If your situation involves physical or emotional abuse, I recommend that you get outside support to learn ways to keep yourself safe. For people who are dealing with a history of trauma, this process may not be appropriate and you may benefit by getting support from an expert who is trained to tailor these skills in a way that works for you.
Notice Your Thoughts and Judgments
When our emotions get carried away, it’s natural to jump to assumptions or judgments about the other person. This is another place to intervene. You won’t really know what was going on for the other person until you ask. We think we will get relief if we can figure out the situation, but this kind of one-sided process actually closes down the potential for a deeper truth to be revealed.
Identifying Your Needs or Values
In the flush of reactivity, the first thing we see is what the other person did wrong and our needs or values that were not met. After we process those intense feelings and thoughts, the next step is to consciously focus our attention on our needs. This is where we get deeper clarity about our own inner landscape and begin to take responsibility for what we value and want in life. Click here for a list of needs. In the case of our fighting couple, Holly may have been yearning for support for her choices about how she shares personal information. Connecting to our needs is all about guessing until something lands and feels right.
The Healing Power of Holding Space
Getting clear about our needs gives traction to our ability to hold space for ourselves in a new way. When we can name and feel the energy and meaning of what’s important to us, that gives us the power to hold space for what we care about and share with another person in a way that is clear and respectful.
Connect with your Intention for Next Steps
Your next step might be to sit with this new awareness of your needs and reflect on how you may want to express it in your life. If you want to share with your partner that will involve some preparation for a skillful conversation.
A key skill in forging loving and healthy relationships is a process of repairing hurts. Have you ever been in a close relationship over many years that did not go through any upsets? If you answered no, take heart, you are not alone! In addition to our unique gifts, we humans are complex beings with contradictions and blind spots. For couples, the benefit of committing to repairing hurts quickly is that the relationship’s atmosphere of emotional safety and trust deepens.
Learning a process of dialogue empowers couples to repair hurts, tell the truth and move forward together. Taking the time to connect in this slow and thoughtful process of communication allows deeper and more complex realities and truths to be revealed and explored within your relationship.