Perhaps the most important book to read to understand men’s relationship to their emotions is Terrence Real’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Covert Depression.” This book offers crucial insight and invaluable guidance to the phenomenon of “men who don’t talk about their feelings.” It is filled with moving, real-life stories, as well as probing analysis. If you are frustrated by your partner’s lack of emotional communication, or if you or your male partner suffers from any degree of depression, I would highly recommend this book.
Here is a synopsis –
There are some men who would rather have dental surgery than talk about their feelings. Why? Because a man’s calling card is his emotional disconnection. Men are socialized from an early age to repress those aspects of themselves that express dependence and vulnerability. In order to achieve masculinity, boys learn to repudiate all things “feminine.” Being a man means being independent and strong. Being a man means being tough. Being a man means to exert control. Men are taught that their sense of identity will be molded by what they achieve professionally and not by what they experience intimately. Relational and emotive skills get quashed to make room for performance and mastery.
Men have been taught from a young age to suck it up and not be a “girl” – i.e., not to feel or express vulnerable emotions which would indicate being “weak.” Pain or sadness is a condition to be “gotten over.” This is why men tend to intellectualize their feelings – they go into their heads to “solve” their emotions or to get rid of them. (This is why men, when confronted by their partner’s sadness or frustration, often try to “fix” the issue rather than to simply listen.) Men are not sharing their feelings with their partners because they are not even sharing their feelings with themselves.
But the problem is, as men soar away from the orbit of their inner world, they leave behind an ever-present, emotional void. And that void can become depression.
Depression is like a black hole. It is the absence of emotion. It is a void where there should be life. Instead of experiencing their feelings (e.g., grief, sadness, or fear), depressed people are trapped in their heads (thinking hopelessly about the future) and in their bodies (unable to escape their lethargy).
To fill or escape the void that is depression, men often bury themselves in work, seek constant stimulation, or numb themselves with alcohol or drugs. Because they don’t know how to seek solace interpersonally, they withdraw relationally. And those unexpressed emotions lie dormant, like volcanoes ready to explode (which is why their partner is much more likely to experience a man’s anger and frustration than his sadness).
So what guidance does Terrence Real offer to men who are disconnected from their emotions?
Men need to unearth and own their sadness – both present and past. For some, they need to ventilate the trauma of their youth, when they suffered physical or verbal abuse, witnessed domestic violence, or endured the rage or rejection of their parents. For most, they need to acknowledge the pain of trying to be strong when they want to be weak, the loneliness of being self-sufficient when they want to be dependent, and the sadness of keeping inside what they need to share.
When these vulnerable emotions are FELT (no matter how painful), the cure to depression begins. Experiencing them is cathartic. This is the crux of the therapeutic process – to gently acknowledge and FEEL one’s pain. Once men learn how to relate and have empathy for their own pain, they will heal and have a renewed capacity for intimacy.
So let’s rediscover those “feminine” aspects of ourselves that society urged us to cast off. Let’s stop the legacy of emotional disconnection handed down from father to son. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our children to break the cycle of “men who don’t talk about their feelings.” As stated by Terrence Real –
“[I]t becomes clear that boys don’t hunger for fathers who will model tradition mores of masculinity. They hunger for fathers who will rescue them from it. They need fathers who have themselves emerged from the gauntlet of their own socialization with some degree of emotional intactness. Sons don’t want their father’s “balls”; they want their hearts. And, for many, the heart of a father is a difficult item to come by.”
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) negatively impacts both the person with the disability and family members who live with him. If the family works together with the proper mindset, however, a lot of frustration, anger, shame, and guilt can be avoided. This is why I consider ADHD a relationship issue. Relief is available if this disorder is treated as an individual problem with an interpersonal solution.
So what is the fix? It is creating short-term incentives to motivate your child or partner to action. Why is this effective?
Books will tell you that the most important thing you need to know about people with ADHD is that they have a cognitive impairment in their frontal lobes that affects their executive function. But a more useful way of understanding this impairment is that people with ADHD are not motivated by long-term rewards. In most of our brains, the neural pathways connecting immediate tasks with awareness of long-term rewards flow smoothly. But for people with ADHD, the part of the brain that connects up the thought process “If I do X now, I will reap the rewards of Y later” does not work. This makes it challenging for them to plan for future-oriented tasks because the benefits of this organization lie so far off on the horizon that they are effectively out of the ADHD person’s cognitive field of view.
Here, for instance, is a common scenario. Parents take the time and energy every night to help their ADHD child with his homework. After a month, these parents get a call from the teacher who says: “Your child is failing my class. He hasn’t handed in homework for the past month.” “How is that possible?” exclaim the parents. “We’ve been sitting with him at the kitchen table every night until he completes each day’s assignment!”
When the parents go upstairs to confront their son, they find a pile of completed, but unsubmitted, homework in his closet. The ostensibly easy task of handing in completed homework has not been accomplished because their child is literally not registering its long-term positive effect (viz., getting a good grade at the end of the semester). This can be very frustrating for parents because often their children are extremely smart, but seem so incompetent to complete the simplest tasks. It is not a problem of intelligence. Rather, the issue is that they are not motivated by long-term planning and, thus, are not good at planning, organization, and execution.
And while family members often experience frustration because they have to pick up the pieces of uncompleted tasks, unmet expectations, and unrealized potential, the child suffers too. A universal experience for ADHD children is that regular tasks, which everyone else seems to manage easily, feel overwhelming. And because schools emphasize homework and assignments, these children (even those who are extremely intelligent) feel incompetent and can suffer from depression and low self-esteem.
How does the lack of long-term planning rear its head in the adult relationship? Seventy percent of children with ADHD continue to exhibit symptoms throughout their lives. Children with ADHD grow up to be husbands and wives. I see many couples whose source of frustration is that one partner is not functioning in terms of managing finances, doing taxes, promoting their career, etc. These tasks are often part of the dynamic described above – an innate lack of motivation by long-term goals.
For instance, the ADHD partner might commit to taking on a household task such as paying taxes but, come April, accounting statements and receipts are in complete disarray and the filing deadline has been missed. The gratification of the long-term goal (getting a refund check) is too far in the future, elusive, and not internally motivating. In general, an ADHD partner may “zone out” during conversations, not remember being told things, or have trouble getting started on, and underestimating the time needed to complete, a task (or not complete the task at all).
The non-ADHD partner feels like she needs to pick up the pieces of every household responsibility because there is another “child” in the house who needs “parenting” and on whom she cannot rely. She interprets these characteristics as irresponsible, and the failure to carry out commitments as a sign that her ADHD partner does not care for or love her. As a consequence, she feels unsupported and angry, and often blames her partner for his shortcomings.
The ADHD partner experiences these complaints as constant and withering judgment. He feels guilty and his self-esteem plummets, causing him to withdraw emotionally. As a result, the non-ADHD partner feels unsupported and abandoned, leading to a new round of angry recriminations. Adults with ADHD have higher than average rates of divorce, job-related difficulties, and substance abuse. Without a larger context to understand what is going on, this cycle can continue indefinitely.
So, how can you alleviate the symptoms of ADHD in both the parent-child and adult relationship?
You need to accept that ADHD requires an incentive “crutch” to motivate your child or partner to action. Short-term rewards and regular feedback need to become the new organizing principle of your relationship. This reward system will keep the motivation fires burning and help reduce the overwhelming feeling that accompanies long-term tasks.
In the case of children, for instance, if you want your child to help around the house, make a list of chores. On the left side of the paper write a “To Do” list and on the right side put a “Reward” list. For every task you have assigned to your child, encourage them come to you and negotiate a reward to be enjoyed that day if and when the task gets completed. Tack this list to his bedroom door to create a prominent visual reminder of your expectations and the prize for getting it done.
If your child is responsible for long-term projects (such as those required by school), show him how to break down the assignment into daily tasks. Create a calendar with a “To Do” list of what needs to be accomplished each day and assign a reward for each daily task. This can be as simple as a well-liked dessert, a favorite TV show, the right to play 30 minutes of video games, or the freedom to use Facebook.
In adult relationships, set up a system that creates regular positive feedback for the ADHD partner. For instance, ADHD partners are often great at short-term gestures – e.g., doing things with the children in the moment, cleaning up after dinner, making a meal, etc. That is because the gratification for the individual is immediate (connecting with another human being, seeing the look of pleasure on the partner’s or children’s face, etc.) and, therefore, is motivating. I would recommend dividing household responsibilities by short- and long-term assignments. Delegate to the partner with ADHD household responsibilities that have a natural, instantaneous reward – any chore where the adult is likely to get immediate feedback, such as “Thanks for dinner, that was great!” or any task where the children’s daily needs are involved.
For long-term projects, collaborate with your partner to create a calendar as described above. Buy a whiteboard and break down each week’s responsibilities. Agree on regular mini-rewards for tasks accomplished – e.g., a massage after working on a home improvement project, a night out with the guys after paying the most recent bills, a favorite snack after balancing the checkbook. Put this whiteboard on prominent display. And remember to give your partner lots of positive feedback every day for tasks completed. Ultimately, the goal is for the person with ADHD to manufacture the schedule and incentives himself for all his responsibilities, thereby fundamentally shifting the interpersonal relationship.
Included below are other resources about ADHD which might be helpful.
Smart But Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
ADD-Friendly Way to Organize Your Life by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau
Mastering Your Adult ADHD (Treatments That Work) by Steven A. Safren
Many couples come to me asking for help to improve their communication. They do not trust that their partner really cares about their deepest needs and desires. This seems in such contrast to their courtship, and the hopes and expectations they had about their partner’s ability to make them happy. After a few years of being in the “real” relationship, they are often left with a profound sense of disappointment, sadness, resentment, and anger.
Courtship can be misleading because each partner makes such supreme efforts to satisfy the other person. We are in high gear trying to anticipate the other’s needs. But when we feel safely “in” the relationship, we often let this hypervigilance about our partner’s happiness relax. Being overwhelmed with work, domestic, and childcare responsibilities can exacerbate the problem.
What is my best advice?
First, don’t fall prey to the fallacy: “If my partner really cared about me, he would know what I need without my even needing to tell him.” This is simply untrue. We all have our own idiosyncratic ways that we experience love. One person needs physical affection, another wishes for verbal affirmation, a third desires gifts, and a fourth wants acts and gestures. Partners (and this can be particularly true of men) often need guidance around how to best show that they care. So give clear directions about what you need (particularly when you are experiencing difficult emotions like sadness or anger).
Second, improve your communication style. Many couples lack the ability to request what they need in a manner which will ensure a positive response from their partners. They do not know how to communicate effectively.
Why do so many couples struggle with this?
We were all born with the ability to convince others to take care of us. It causes parents visceral distress to hear our children in pain. So we will do our utmost to satisfy their needs. That is why we scurry around trying to alleviate their hunger, fatigue, sickness, etc. We want their distress to go away.
But note the manner of that communication. Babies simply cry, thereby exhibiting their pain. And small children ask for what they need in a non-judgmental and direct way. For instance, while an unhappy partner is likely to yell: “Where the hell is dinner!” a child will say: “I am hungry!” The former will elicit a defensive response and the latter sympathy. Or the neglected partner might recriminate angrily: “You work all the time!” while the child who misses his parent will plead: “Mommy, let’s play together!” The first is an accusation and the second a request for intimacy. The child invites repair, while the adult threatens the relationship’s sense of security. One elicits concern and attention, and the other provokes defensiveness and anger.
If we, as adults, cannot effectively communicate about our needs, it is usually because this innate ability was squelched by unresponsive parents or society. We received a new, unnatural education not to talk about our hardest emotions. When we did not receive positive responses to our emotional communications, we learned to repress our needs, or aggressively assert them, or resent those who deny them.
If we do not get the love we needed as a child, we lose the skill to ask for love effectively as an adult. And the adult’s reaction to not getting their needs met can be very intimidating. Instead of crying, unhappy partners yell and get angry. Instead of asking for what we want, unhappy partners withdraw and simmer with resentment. Instead of pleading incessantly, unhappy partners criticize incessantly.
So how to deal with the wounded child-now-adult who has lost the capacity to call out in a way that elicits a positive response from those closest to him?
The answer is we need to recover our innate ability to communicate in a way that taps into our partner’s desire to reach out and help us. But this trust needs to be rebuilt slowly between partners. The relationship needs to rest upon a new foundation that can only be built by small gestures of responsivity and empathy. The couple needs to live and believe in a new truth that: “If I hurt, I can reach out and I will be taken care of and loved.”
The mechanics of this new, communication skill set can be found in my blog “How to Communicate Effectively When You Are Upset” (February 2011). Incorporate this rubric for effective communication (suggested in that blog) into your daily routines and lexicon. But be prepared that the willingness to trust, to allow oneself to be vulnerable, and to risk making a request which, if unfulfilled, will cause pain, will take time. So incorporate the skill set slowly. Experiment with mundane issues. Talk about minor annoyances. Make requests where the risk of disappointment is minimal. Share small desires. And, most importantly, be willing to practice and to devote time to communicating in this new way. It can rebuild the very fabric of your relationship.
Couples often have difficulty communicating effectively with one another when there is a problem. All too often, you get anger or defensiveness in response to telling your partner that you are unhappy with something that he/she is doing. Rather than receive sympathy or an apology, you have to endure resentment, withdrawal, or combat.
So how can you be true to the intensity of your emotion but not start a fight with your partner? Or, more importantly, how can you articulate to your partner what is really bothering you and increase the likelihood that he/she will WANT to make things better?
There are four steps to effective communication that can help you achieve this goal. (These steps are also used in what is commonly known as “NVC” or non-violent communication.) They are:
1) Make a Neutral Observation
2) Describe Your Vulnerable Feelings
3) Articulate Your Relationship Needs
4) Make a Specific Request
Making a Neutral Observation – Describe to your partner her annoying/infuriating/ outrageous behavior by making a neutral observation. For instance, rather than stating accusingly: “You’re late!” say “You promised me that you would be home at 6:30 p.m. and it is now 9:15 p.m.” or “You didn’t call me to say you would be home two hours later than originally promised.”
Describing your partner’s frustrating behavior in a relatively non-judgmental fashion creates the foundation for her to hear your concerns non-defensively. This also increases the chances that she will continue in the conversation with the desire to make you feel better. There are some cultures (and relationships) where explosive interactions will not unravel the bonds of affection. But more often than not, erupting with anger or unleashing criticism is likely to elicit defensive emotions and cause your partner to get angry in return or to withdraw (depending on your partner’s MO). Think of this as simple cause and effect embedded in our DNA – unbridled anger or caustic criticism creates a “fight or flight” response. The gentler the initial foray, the more gentle the reaction will be.
Describing Your Feelings – Take a moment to figure out and then express your vulnerable (non-angry) emotions. What is the fundamental need not being met by your partner and how do you feel about that? For instance, beneath the anger in the example above there might be feelings of sadness (e.g., the missed opportunity of intimacy to have dinner together), lack of support (e.g., shouldering child rearing responsibilities by yourself), powerlessness (e.g., not being able to pursue your own plans because you are dependent on someone else who is unreliable), or abandonment (e.g., if this person cared about me, she would be on time).
To help you clarify your underlying emotions beneath the anger, try saying out loud the narrative running in your head about your partner’s behavior. Our emotions are often dictated by our interpretations of others’ actions, so it can be helpful to figure out that story. For instance: “You are coming home two hours late because you don’t want to spend time with me. I feel really sad about that” or “When you don’t call me to tell me you’ll be late, I think it must be because you don’t value my time. Wow, I feel really disrespected.” Not only does sharing your story help you to gain emotional clarity, but it also allows your partner to correct an interpretation of her behavior that wasn’t commensurate with her intentions (e.g., “I really wanted to be here with you tonight and have time alone with you, but I got caught in gridlock traffic. I didn’t call you because I was too worried about disappointing you.”)
Delving down to the vulnerable emotions can be difficult, particularly when your wound is fresh. I tell couples I counsel that they need to hone their internal dialogue before they can improve the external communication. In other words, if you want to increase the chances that your partner will remain productively engaged with you and your complaints, you need to try to plumb the depths of your emotions for the vulnerable feeling at the center of your maelstrom. This means digging deep beneath your anger to understand why your partner’s behavior is triggering you so negatively.
Articulating Your Needs – State what you generally need or want from the relationship. This helps contextualize your anger. For instance, “I need to know that you respect my time” or “It is important to me that we have quality, alone time each week” or “I look forward to dinner with you every night.”
Your partner will definitely see that you are upset, but may not understand why you feel so strongly. Articulating your needs begins to shift the focus from your disappointment (which is often difficult for the listener to contain – particularly when the disappointment is with him) to the common ground of where your partner can meet you. By stating your needs, you are opening the door to rapprochement and a hopeful resolution to the argument because you are signaling “This is what I need and, if I can get it, I will be happy.”
Making a Request – State with specificity what it is that your partner can do right now in order to alleviate your intense emotions. For instance, you might request an apology. Or you might say “Let’s sit down now with our calendars and plan when we are going to have a night out together.” Or even “I want you to tell me what time we can sit down tonight so I can tell you how upset this makes me.” (This last request can be useful in a situation where your partner feels ambushed and needs time to collect herself.)
Making a specific request is a very important step in resolving conflict. It is often difficult for your partner to hear that you are unhappy. Even if you have successfully identified a vulnerable emotion, it is natural for the listener to interpret your unhappiness as “You are dissatisfied with me!” And there is a natural tendency for the listener to be alarmed by the threat to the couple’s intimacy which obstructs her ability to be available and empathize with your pain.
The trick to effective communication when having a difficult conversation is to state your emotions clearly while concurrently opening the door to your partner for continued intimacy. When there has been a fight, your partner often needs help seeing how to rebuild the bridge back across the chasm of your silence, pain, or anger. This is where the request comes in. The request signifies to your partner the path to continued intimacy – a path of immediate action that will help ease your pain. Making the request is the blueprint for re-engagement. It signifies the hope and possibility that you two can continue to be a couple and satisfy each other’s needs.
Raising children is hard. It is a labor of love that demands 24/7 care and energy. And in this age of geographically mobile professionals, we are often far away from the family support that generations of parents relied on. Our “village” has been replaced by paid care and busy playdate schedules. Even when all runs smoothly, it can be a demanding, frustrating, and exhausting role in parallel to its being so rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful.
So whether you are a working or stay-at-home parent, have one children or many, a lot of family support or little, I have one important message to you – take care of yourself! Find the time to re-energize. Find the time to devote to yourself to the little hobbies or activities that give you pleasure, and to the friends and family that sustain you. Your children need a parent who is a happy and healthy caretaker.
This has become a cliché, but it is true that it is more important to insure that the time you spend with your children has quality rather than quantity. A stressed out, tired, annoyed parent is not going to be able to give a child the love that he/she deserves. A parent who does not take care of him/herself won’t be present, receptive, and enthusiastic about the time spent with his/her child. Frequent, negative interactions, because you often lose patience, snap, or get angry with your child, are far more detrimental to your child than him/her missing you for a few hours.
When couples see me for counseling, invariably they have allowed date nights and alone time to fall by the wayside. They have tacitly resigned themselves to their roles of “business partners” whose primary purpose is to raise their children. Working and managing domestic logistics become all-consuming.
These parents, before children, were able to devote love and attention to one another, and nurture their personal interests and hobbies. But now it seems insurmountable, or too much trouble, to take advantage of the free time available to them. As a result, they get burnt out and feel unattended to by their partners. A sense of alienation, resentment, and arguments can ensue. This dynamic does not go unnoticed by children and can be very damaging to their well-being. Children are dependent on their parents. They need to know that everything is all right in their parents’ world in order to feel that everything is OK in their world.
So try to find a balance between all your many obligations and your duty to take care of yourself. Give yourself license to take the time you need to re-energize. Indulge a few hours a week in the activities that give you joy. Go on dates with your partner. Take mini-vacations by yourself. Find pockets of time to nurture your body, mind, and spirit. You deserve it. And your children need it.
There is a lot written about how to discipline one’s child. How to get them to listen. How to get them to do their homework. How to get them to help around the house. How to get them to stop teasing or whacking their little siblings.
But there is not a lot written about how to coach your children to evolve into emotional beings. How to help your child become aware of her emotions. How to provide the space for your child to feel deeply. And how to help him be comfortable articulating those feelings to others.
Infants and young children can usually exhibit their feelings in an uncensored manner. But soon, social forces teach children to keep their emotions in check. Public displays of intense feeling subject them to ridicule, disregard, or admonishments to keep quiet.
One of parents’ most important jobs is to create a safe container into which your child can pour out all of her unexpressed anger, sadness, and frustration. To be that one place where your child can take off society’s repressive lid and let his feelings boil over into the patient, understanding, and sympathetic embrace of someone who loves him.
Think how much better your life would have been if you and your parents had been able to talk about emotions in an intimate, transparent and positive way? You have the ability to create that dynamic for your child. This is so important.
Forging an emotional bond with your child is infinitely more helpful than finding her a therapist. Therapists provide a safe space where their clients can figure out what they are feeling (as opposed to just thinking), acknowledge the emotions out loud, and feel them deeply. You, the parent, by becoming your child’s emotional coach, have the capacity to be the best therapist in the world because you can facilitate such an interaction every day between your child and the person he wants to talk to the most – you!
So how exactly do you become your child’s emotional coach? This may seem like a daunting project because sometimes it can be difficult to pull thoughts and feelings out of our children:
Parent’s Question: “How was school?” Child’s Answer: “OK.”
Question: “How did it feel when Bobby teased you?” Answer: “I dunno.”
Question: “Would you like to tell me about your boyfriend.” Answer: “Gross! Leave me alone!”
The good news is that emotional coaching is fairly simple and can be boiled down to two simple steps. First, whenever your child talks about something with any energy (e.g., anger, sadness, frustration), be curious. Second, validate their emotions by reflecting back to them what you have heard them say.
The heart of being a good listener is to embrace the notion of being curious. Like a therapist, try not to have a specific agenda. Ask lots of open-ended question – namely, “how, what, and why” questions that elicit answers longer than a “yes” or “no”. Keep your child talking and give him/her your full attention.
Simple, right? The rub is that it is often difficult for parents to remain in an empathic, neutral space when the child is exhibiting negative emotions. You are likely to be triggered. You may want to figure out how to make your child’s distress to go away (“No one wants to play with me!”). Or you may get defensive because your child is complaining about something you do (“You’re not fair!”). Or you may worry that her attitude is detrimental to her future well-being (“School is stupid!”).
It can be difficult to hear your child’s pain, anger, or criticism. Stay relaxed. Keep breathing. Listen for vulnerable emotions behind anger and frustration. Resist the impulse to go into problem solving mode or to defend your actions or convince your child out of his feelings. Look for grains of truth in what is being said and try to understand the issue from your child’s point of view.
Why is listening so important?
First, your child will feel really seen and understood when you ask them questions about events that are important to them. This is a profound reminder to them that they exist and that you care.
Second, think of this dynamic as exercising your child’s emotional muscles. By asking a lot of curious, open-ended questions, you are exploring with your child his inner world. You are training him to discover and work through his emotions (“What happened?” “Easy, I remember that!” “Why did that bother me?” “Hmm…let me explore that feeling…” “What would have made me feel better?” “OK, I’m thinking about what I need…”). This is why we call this emotional coaching. Your child needs to acquire this skill for her healthy development. And your role is essential because emotional intelligence it is not taught at school. We can end up with advanced degrees without ever acquiring an iota of emotional wisdom.
Lastly, when you “get it,” reflect back to your child what they just told you (from their point of view). Show them that you understand them. This will give your child the sense that she is fundamentally seen and understood by the most important person in her life – you!
And what about reacting to what you have heard? Sometimes your child needs your advice. Sometimes your child needs discipline. And sometimes your child has the wrong idea about something important.
My best advice is to separate your need to respond to the content of your child’s words from the opportunity to elicit the emotional import. Don’t mix the two. Save your response for later. Let your child have the experience of being heard (if only for 15 minutes). A parent’s verbal assurances (“You know you can tell me anything.”) will not be as convincing as a child’s experience of good listening. Let your child know that you are always there to listen and to understand. Let your child experience a safe place for them to pour out their emotions.
Emotional coaching necessitates time and patience. So, when your child talks about anything with any emotional energy behind it, find the time and the right attitude to listen, and remember the mantra – be curious, be curious, be curious.
It is important that you and your partner know how to recover well from a fight. Do you feel safe to stop being angry or defensive or withdrawn? Do you trust each other to make up? Can you risk being vulnerable again?
Small children tend to recover from fights well. My young son, for instance, on the heels of a temper tantrum, states plainly “I need love!” when he is no longer angry and wants affection. It never fails to elicit a positive response.
Children, whose needs are consistently met, are able to move confidently between anger and their desire to reconnect. Why? Because our DNA ingrains in parents a nurturing response to children’s vulnerable pleas. We are quick to forgive even the most hurtful comments (“I hate you!” or “Go live in another house!”) when our children reapproach us with vulnerability.
But the angry partner who holds a grudge, pouts, withdraws, or simmers will not be met with such sympathy. His behavior will likely elicit a ‘fight or flight’ response when it appears unsafe to make up. And it is difficult to reconnect with your partner when you feel that you are warily circling each other as combatants rather than intimates.
Finding a vulnerable space is key to making up with your partner after an argument. You need to create a dynamic which sees past and forgives your partner’s adult, aggressive behaviors, and uncovers the wounded child crying out in pain. This allows you to tap into your ingrained, nurturing instincts and reconnect.
Knowing your partner’s inner wounded child can be very helpful in this process. If you have engaged in the exercise outlined in my previous blog entry, you should have a sense of your partner’s most sensitive issues. This information (and compassion) can guide you in asking what I call the “Magic Question.”
The Magic Question is a gesture indicating that you want to put down the boxing gloves. It shows that you care about your partner’s wounded child needs. It is a verbal bridge going to the very core of your partner’s childhood experience and coming back to heal what is paining them in the present.
For instance, if your partner had parents who were dismissive of her every need, she will likely get very triggered when she is feeling unsupported. Of if your partner had parents who were very critical, he will likely resent feeling judged. If these two were in a relationship and fighting, the woman, whose needs were never attended to, might have a tendency to get enraged or shut down in the face of an unsympathetic response, while he, who constantly feels criticized, might get angry or withdrawn in the face of her vocal (or what he what he interprets as) silent condemnation. The argument, that starts off on a concrete issue (e.g. someone late, some chore not finished, or some request unheeded), spins out of control because these sensitive buttons are being pushed. The content of the fight (the actual words being spoken) are not addressing the core issues.
The Magic Question allows the couple to extricate itself from this whirlpool and hone in on the acute problem fueling their negative responses. The Magic Question is formulated as follows: “What can I do right now so that you will feel ____?” The blank should be filled in with what you know is most important to your partner. For instance, “What can I do right now so that you will feel supported/empathized with/that your needs are being listened to?” would be ways to formulate the Magic Question to the woman above. “What can I do right now so that I can state what is bothering me without you feeling judged/criticized/like nothing you do is ever good enough?” would be good questions for the man.
When I work with couples, natural responses to the above might follow in the vein of (for the woman): “Just spend ten minutes listening to me without reacting.” “Repeat what I have said so that I know that you have heard me.” “Tell me that my concerns are important and legitimate (even if you disagree on their solution).” Or responses from the man: “Tell me three things that you are pleased I did before criticizing my behavior.” “Tell me that you still care for me, even though you are unhappy with this particular thing.” “Please comment on my actions and not on my character.”
One problem that I see again and again in my practice is that couples are not attuned to taking care of each other’s sensitive, core issues. When dating, they often coo over each other like mother hens – anticipating needs, making romantic gestures, and showing infinite patience. These behaviors reassure the other that, like a loved child, they will be taken care of. But as the relationship progresses, these behaviors fade into the distance. And when a fight is brewing, they hyperspace into a distant galaxy. Suddenly, this person, with whom you are supposed to be so intimate, feels like a stranger or an antagonist. And the relationship feels very unsafe. Reconciliation seems so difficult.
But if you can ask the Magic Question, you are making an important gesture to your partner. You are conveying that you want to soothe the inner child, to reassure him that he will continue to be taken care, and to convince her that she will be safe. And if you can deliver on the request made in response, you have opened the door to changing the argument’s whole dynamic, creating emotional empathy, and forging reconciliation.