Managing Feelings — 25 November 2007
The method that repairs hurtful comments and restores harmony in relationships

Maintaining a satisfying and successful relationship requires ongoing words and actions of love. Even the most compatible and happy mates, on occasion, find that their verbal exchanges do not exhibit their steady respect for each other. The listening mate is often baffled about how to best react to the less than heartwarming messages.

The yearning to be loved unconditionally and be treated as a precious being at all times is a universal and unrealistic wish. David Richo, in his book ‘How to be An Adult in Relationships’ labels what adults hope to receive from their partners as the “Five A’s: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection and Allowing (me to be myself)”. When we encounter messages that frustrate these needs, we may feel hurt, rejected, abandoned, insignificant, unworthy or unloved.

To recover from the devastating feeling we experience when a partner is unsupportive, discounting, or hurtful most people initially freeze and then chose their “fight or flight” response. They either retort with an aggressive, unkind or shaming rebuttal or withdraw to nurse their wound. Neither option enhances the relationship. Attacking only perpetuates painful words that neither mate may easily shake soon after – or ever. Withdrawing causes the deep hurt to fester and if not cleared later, slowly erode the partners’ intimacy.

I suggest a different response to occasional harsh, unkind, or hurtful words that can repair the damage to the listener and keep the dignity of the speaker intact. It requires a counter-intuitive reaction of appreciating the mate after he/she spoke unkindly to you.
PLEASE NOTE: This approach is not appropriate for chronically verbally abusive partner/s.

First we need to accept certain premises: 1. No loving partner intentionally inflicts pain on the other. 2. All human behavior is self-motivated. It is intended to keep the individual physically and emotionally safe and secure. 3.Therefore, if one understands the cause of the original insulting sentence, one can respond in a way that best serves both partners.

Learn to become the ‘Motivation Detective’. Try to decipher what the partner may be needing or feeling that prompts him/her to hurl an insult at you. Remember, it is about him/her- NOT about you. Common causes are: needing appreciation, self-worry or insecurity, a frustrated need to be helpful, or association with annoyances from the past. Once you guess what may be behind the sentence with ‘attitude’, you will know how to diffuse it for yourself and your partner.

Here are a couple of examples:
Partner says: “I can’t believe how you drive, you don’t even know how to switch lanes, what’s wrong with you?”
Immediate reaction: Hurt, defensiveness, a desire to explain and justify, or to point out some of the partner’s poor driving habits (fight) or to get silent, sulk and feel resentful (flight).
Alternative way: Ask yourself, what could have caused my partner to speak to me in this way?
Detective’s guess: He/she is feeling unsafe about my driving.
You Respond in a neutral voice: “I hear that you are uncomfortable about my frequent lane changes, I respect this coming from you, a very good and safe driver.” In validating the mate’s discomfort and giving him/her an appreciation, the mate is likely feel valued and both of you will be calmer. A fight was prevented, and your understanding freed you from personalizing the attack and feeling insulted.

Partner returns home from work and says: “Why is the house always in such a mess, what do you do all day, anyway?”
Immediate reaction: He/she doesn’t respect me, and how difficult it is to keep everything clean with two small children. Your impulse is to tell him he is clueless knowing it could provoke a cascading fight.
Alternative way: ask yourself what may be troubling him?
Detective guess: The mate may be feeling out of control on the job and re-experiences it when he/she comes home. Or he/she may be feeling fear recalling the messy childhood home prior to his/her mother’s mental hospitalization. Both guesses are about powerlessness.
You respond with empathy: “I can understand how difficult it must be for you to come home to a messy place. Let’s go into the living room and tell me about your day.”
Empathy often makes people feel understood, safe and steady.

This approach is not intended to abandon your own needs. You may later choose to tell your partner that his/her manner of speech is insulting and unacceptable. Yet, modeling empathy reduces needless altercations and creates for both of you a safer environment for intimacy.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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