Have you ever felt as if you were an unwitting passenger in your own interactions? You tell yourself that just this once you will not lose it with your loved one. But in the heat of the moment, there it goes — the unkind word, the raised voice, the torrent of what you really think.
Maybe you’re not the explosive type. Instead of lashing out, you shut down because you’re either disgusted (I don’t need this!) or overwhelmed (I can’t handle this!) or both at the same time.
Maybe you’re neither aggressive nor withdrawn. Maybe you’re moderate, even-tempered, and sensible — it’s just that your partner isn’t.
It’s been said that there are two types of couples: those who fight, and those who distance. I’d add a third: those who do both. One of you rails while the other shuts down. Hailstorm and tortoise.
I sometimes refer to these dysfunctional patterns as the expression of “normal marital hatred,” where our imperfections and our partner’s imperfections collide.
Welcome to humanity.
I’m a relationship expert and couples therapist. Over three decades, thousands of mental health professionals and coaches have trained in the model of therapy I’ve developed called Relational Life Therapy. If you find yourself frequently fighting with your partner, if you feel unheard and frustrated in your relationship, or if you often feel underappreciated, overly controlled, or just poorly treated by your partner, this approach offers a different way to relate. It involves getting past the individualist, adversarial stance of you and me and learning to recognize and care about the collective us.
I write about all of this at length in Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. These are a few of the key ideas from my book.
When we’re in the middle of a conflict with our partner, most of us don’t remember that we love this person.
The good news is the love is still there.
The bad news is that it’s stored in parts of our brain, body, and nervous system that, in those flash moments, we no longer inhabit. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which provides perspective and self-regulation, has pretty much shut down; the subcortical system — especially the reactive amygdala — has decisively taken over.
At these times, the brain is in a state in which the prefrontal cortex is largely cut off from the subcortical system. When the amygdala loses that soothing and connection, we miss our chance to pause between feeling and acting. These more primitive parts of our brains care only about our personal survival; they have no interest in maintaining the vulnerability of intimacy. The us of partnership evaporates and becomes you and me, adversaries in a cold world of I win, you lose.
When we’re in the middle of a conflict with our partner, most of us don’t remember that we love this person. The good news is the love is still there.
It doesn’t help that we live in a highly individualistic, hierarchical culture that rewards these competitive attitudes. I call this toxic individualism, and it’s interfering with our relationships every day.
Us consciousness, on the other hand, is the seat of closeness and intimacy. It enables us to recognize ourselves as part of a larger whole — when we can access it.
You and me is great when you’re confronting a tiger, but less so when you are confronting your spouse, your boss, or your child. In those moments, part of what makes it so hard to keep a cool head is a million or so years of evolution plus one powerful force: trauma.
Trauma pulls you into survival mode; you are clenching your fists for the fight or clamping your jaws shut like a fortress. And the more childhood trauma you sustained, the more compelling you and me becomes.
The Myth of the Individual
There are many good reasons to overcome you-and-me consciousness. One of them is that we’re not really separate from each other in the first place.
Current research clearly indicates that we are not walled-in, freestanding individuals. Our brains are built for coregulation. Partners in close relationships coregulate one another’s nervous systems, cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and immune responsiveness. Secure relationships lead to increased immunity and less disease, to say nothing of lower scores in depression and anxiety and higher reported general well-being.
Our nervous systems were never designed to self-regulate, at least not solely. We all filter our sense of stability and well-being through our connection to others. And yet the culture of rugged individualism saturates our society, encouraging us to fight for our own agenda at the expense of others — no matter the cost.
Couples who avoid all conflict are at serious risk of divorce because they never learn the skills of repair, which is like relational glue.
But the relational answer to the question “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” is “Who cares?” The real question is “How are we as a team going to approach the issue at hand in a way that works for both of us?”
You might be surprised to learn that I believe this means you have to take each other on. Couples who avoid all conflict are at serious risk of divorce because they never learn the skills of repair, which is like relational glue.
I’m not asking you to take each other on as adversaries: I want you to face each other as interconnected equals, ones who are going to win or lose this thing together.
The Adaptive Child
When I’m working with a couple, I have one question in my mind. It’s not What are the stressors? Stressors — like money woes, mismatched sex drives, kids, and in-laws — are important, but a well-functioning couple can handle a reasonable amount of stress.
The central question I ask myself during a therapy session is this: Which part of you am I talking to?
Am I talking to the mature part of you, the one who’s present in the here and now? I call this part the Wise Adult. That’s the part that cares about us, the part that can stay connected when things get tough.
Or am I speaking to a triggered part of you, to your adversarial you-and-me consciousness? That part of you sees things through the prism of the past, and it’s going to fight like hell for your survival as an individual.
I believe there’s no such thing as overreacting; it’s just that what you’re reacting to may no longer be what’s in front of you.
The phrase “trauma memory” is really a misnomer. You don’t remember trauma; you relive it. The combat vet who hears a car backfire and spins around like they’re gripping a rifle is not thinking, I’m remembering combat. In that flash moment, the vet is viscerally back at war.
Most of us don’t reenact the experience of trauma so literally. Instead, we act out the coping strategy that we evolved to deal with it. You were emotionally abandoned throughout your childhood, so you’ve grown into a charming seducer, expert at securing others’ attention. Or you were intruded upon as a child, and now you operate behind walls; you are adept at keeping people out.
I call this compensating part of us the Adaptive Child. One of my great mentors, Pia Mellody, spoke of the Adaptive Child as a “kid in grown-up’s clothing.” This chart shows the difference between these two parts of ourselves:
|Adaptive Child||Wise Adult|
|Black and white||Nuanced|
|Tight in body||Relaxed in body|
The Adaptive Child has some consistent traits, but it looks a little different in each of us. You may have an overly accommodating, people-pleasing Adaptive Child. Or your Adaptive Child could tend toward superiority, or inferiority. It might bounce back and forth between the two.
But whether it’s dominating or withdrawn, your Adaptive Child will react pretty much the same way whenever you’re triggered: complaining, controlling, pleasing, withdrawing. This set-point reaction, this relational modus operandi, is your relational stance.
Fight, Flight, Fix
A telltale sign that the Adaptive Child has taken over is the whoosh — the visceral reaction that comes up from your feet like a wave washing over your body.
I call this the first consciousness, and I divide it into three reactions: fight, flight, or fix. Your default reaction is a summary of your relational stance.
We all know what fight looks like. As for flight, someone can sit inches away from another person and still flee — they just do it internally. We call that stonewalling.
Finally, the knee-jerk response of fixing is not the same as a mature, considered wish to work on the relationship. Adaptive Child fixers are fueled by an anxious, driven need to take away anyone’s tension from them as soon as possible. Their motto is I’m upset until you’re not.
Still, the Adaptive Child is not some toxic force you must banish or destroy. It is a young part of you that learned to cope the best way it could at the time. What it needs is to be parented, and the only person who can reliably do that at this point is you.
The good news is that almost all of us have resources as adults that we lacked as children, even if our nervous systems believe otherwise. We can learn to soften into vulnerability, or stand up to our spouses, and let the chips fall where they may.
We can develop the courage to do this with an everyday practice called relational mindfulness. We learn how to stop and center ourselves, observing the thoughts, feelings, and impulses that arise — and then choose something different.
That doesn’t mean we won’t still lose it from time to time, but as Wise Adults, we learn how to repair our mistakes for the good of the whole.
The Skills of Repair
Dealing with each other — what does this phrase really mean? At its most basic, this means airing your dissatisfaction, articulating your desires, making concrete suggestions about how things might work better for you, and then, if all goes well, working like a team to make things right. It also means doing all these things from the nonreactive, team-oriented perspective of your Wise Adult.
Repair demands assertion (not aggression) from the unhappy partner, met by care and responsiveness (not defensiveness) in the other. There is a technology to repair, a skill set that few of us learn about in our mostly nonrelational, individualistic culture.
Remember, we are connected; we are part of a larger ecosystem in our relationships.
Unless you were lucky to grow up in a relationally intelligent home, with loving boundaries and healthy communication, learning the skills of repair means unlearning what you internalized about relationships while you were growing up. It helps to work with a professional, but you can also transform yourself and your relationships through self-study — books, lectures, and online courses. Particularly if you and your partner learn together.
Yet if even just one of you masters greater relational skill — if you study the importance of harmony, disharmony, and repair — the patterns may shift between you.
Repair is the most critical relationship skill to practice with your partner. These are some of the components of a successful approach to repair.
Stay in your lane.
When you’re dissatisfied with your relationship, it’s critical that you say something rather than sweep it aside. But there’s a difference between speaking the way most of us do in this culture and speaking in a manner that might get you heard.
Start by dropping the accusations. Stay on your side of the street. Don’t accuse your partner — talk about yourself. Not “You’re being avoidant!” but rather “Hey, I don’t feel met.”
Accept that repair is not a two-way street.
Almost everyone gets this wrong. But when you are faced with an upset partner, now is not your turn. This is not a dialogue. You must take turns. Repair goes in one direction. When your partner is in a state of disrepair, your only job is to get them back into harmony with you, to deal with their upset, and to support them in reconnecting.
I ask people, when they’re faced with an unhappy partner, to put their needs aside and attend to the other’s unhappiness. Why? Because it’s in your interest to do so.
Remember, we are connected; we are part of a larger ecosystem in our relationships. From an ecological perspective, if one of you wins and the other is left lacking, both suffer.
We have to let go of the two approaches that toxic individualism pulls us toward. The first, so-called objective reality, sounds like this: “Yes, I was late, but traffic was. . . .” But no one cares about your excuses or explanations when their feelings are hurt.
Our second usual focus is ourselves: “Oh come on, how many times have I waited while you . . . ?” Again, this is not about you. Your partner wants to know if you care about them.
Adjust your stance.
Changing your stance changes the dance between you. Take the risk of leading with a different part of you — vulnerability for the righteous, assertion for the timid — and then step back and observe.
What happens if you say, “My feelings are hurt” instead of “You’re so hurtful”? Or your partner interrupts you and, rather than fuming in silence, you state firmly that you’re not finished speaking? The shift from indignation to hurt, or the shift from tepid complaint to empowered assertion, will quite often provoke a different response from your partner than usual.
Still, change takes time, so don’t focus on instant results. As much as you can, try to let go of the outcome. Focus instead on how well you handle yourself in difficult interactions, then see what unfolds.
Help your partner repair with you.
The Adaptive Child will most likely try to take over when you feel wounded. Having a structure to help organize your thoughts and more skillfully speak up when you are hurt will help you stay in your Wise Adult.
I recommend using my colleague Janet Hurley’s Feedback Wheel, a form of speaking that has four parts:
- This is what I recollect happened.
- This is what I made up about it.
- This is what I felt.
And the fourth, all-important step that most people leave out:
- This would help me feel better.
In other words, this is what repair might look like.
Help your partner come through for you. Tell them how you’d like them to be. Be specific when you share hurt feelings; focus on a single feeling or occurrence that your partner can successfully address. Help them win, because it’s in your interest to act like a team.
From an individualist point of view, your partner either comes through for you or they don’t. But when you begin thinking relationally, ecologically, you realize you have some say in how things go between you.
“What can I do to help you come through for me?” is an entirely relational question. Thinking like a team is a clear antidote to thinking like two individuals. It’s a shift from “I don’t like how you’re talking to me” to “Honey, I want to hear what you’re saying. Could you please lower your voice so I can hear it?”
Listen with a generous heart.
When taking feedback from your partner who’s hurt, yield. Don’t get defensive, or go tit for tat, or any of that Adaptive Child behavior. You need to remember love, and you can begin by giving the gift of your presence. Listen. Let your partner know they’ve been heard. Repeat their concerns back to them as best you can.
If you are the hurt one, and your partner leaves out some important things or gets something seriously wrong as they reflect back to you, help them out. Gently correct them, and then have them reflect again. But don’t be overly fussy. Serviceable is good enough.
Finally, if you made the mistake, own whatever you can, with no buts or excuses. Really take it on. The more accountable you are, the more your partner can relax, and the sooner you can reconnect again.
Take a Deep Breath
In close relationships, urgency is your enemy, and breath is your friend. Breath can change your heart rate and your thinking, physiologically. In moments of relational heroism, we reach for a different part of ourselves than usual — which almost guarantees a different response from our partners.
In close relationships, urgency is your enemy, and breath is your friend.
When we have this experience over time, it allows our negative expectations, born in childhood, to be contradicted. Neurobiology calls this memory reconsolidation; in psychology, we call it a corrective emotional experience.
The other word for this is “healing.” In our relationships, we can heal each other — but not in the ways we commonly think, by controlling our partners or getting from them what we lacked as children.
Rather, we can heal by coming to terms with the ignored parts of ourselves. We learn how to cultivate relational mindfulness, and we let our Wise Adult retake the reins.
This article originally appeared as “From Me and You to Us” in the September/October 2023 issue.