Staying Sane with your Significant Other

| Posted On Jul 13, 2012 | By:

Have you ever confided in your friends, “Why do I have so much trouble communicating with my partner?” or “Why do I end up saying things that hurt my partner, when I would never say such things to anyone else? What happened to that wonderful connection in the beginning and how can I get it back?”

Many people experience regret after a difficult argument, believing they have succeeded in eroding trust in the one person with whom they want closeness.

Alan E.  Fruzzetti, PhD wrote a book entitled The High Conflict Couple, A Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy and Validation. This is a book full of hope for all couples. It is useful for couples experiencing even minor conflict, trying to deal with the normal stress of balancing busy lives.  The title refers to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, a cognitive behavioral therapy developed by Marsha Linehan, Phd at the University of Washington.  The focus of this therapy is on acceptance and validation as a first step in changing behavior, along with learning the skills of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. Let’s be honest: it’s hard enough to use these skills on yourself when you are in a bad place, feeling anxious, negative or depressed. How, therefore, do you use them when you feel particularly negative about your partner?

The author points out that couples often end up feeling judgmental, distant, and angry after an argument, and the last thought on their minds is to reach out to their partner with acceptance. One or both have often forgotten that, at the point a conflict began, they wanted closeness and instead were left feeling angry. They are often aghast, saying, “You want me to agree with what my partner is saying?!” But acceptance doesn’t mean agreement; it means seeing that the situation is not a win/lose situation, it isn’t about right or wrong but just about the difference. It is possible that there is room for both opinions, and it is possible to find a grain of truth on either side of an argument.

In addition, it can be extraordinarily difficult to admit one feels vulnerable, in need of attention and love from another person. We all hear how admirable it is to be self-sufficient and independent. It is therefore easier sometimes to be angry and self-righteous than to express what may seem like our embarrassing needs and wants, which perhaps exposes us to being humiliated or disappointed.

Fruzzetti and others talk about primary emotions that are universal, such as disappointment, fear and contentment. Secondary emotions (feelings about feelings) are described as reactions to primary reactions and involve judgments, blame, and critical thoughts. Judgments can be destructive to a relationship and tend to provoke the other person to do the same. Then we find ourselves in a cycle of escalating accusations that increase our judging. When you are feeling hurt, how easy it is to say to your partner, “You are the one with the problem, not me!”

So, what can you do?  How can you build up your relationship instead of reacting to feelings and tearing it down?

One way out of the cycle of blaming is to catch yourself when you notice you are judging your partner or defending yourself. If you can calm yourself down, your criticism of your partner should calm down, too. Here are some steps to follow to achieve this:

  1. Stop and mentally “step to the side” of the emotional situation.
  2. Practice describing to yourself just the facts of your disagreement without evaluation.
  3. Practice deep breathing. Concentrate on your senses, tuning in to what you see or hear right in front of you.
  4. Take your own version of a “time out” until you feel your body calming down and your anger and hurt receding. Your mind will slow down as well as the judgmental thoughts you may be having about yourself or your partner.

DBT talks about this cycle as being caught in “our emotional mind.” When in your emotional mind, the actions you may choose can feel right or satisfying in the short run, but be disastrous in the long run. Remind yourself that the only way to have your way all the time is to be alone, and as appealing as that may be when you are upset, it may not be what you truly want. Deep down, most of us want someone who “has our back” and will be around when the chips are down.

Fruzzetti’s book has a chapter entitled “How To Stop Making Things Worse.” He suggests thinking about how being critical will only make your relationship worse, despite how much you feel you have a “right”  to be judgmental. He goes on to suggest that you focus on the consequences of continuing to fight and the ultimate futility of trying to pinpoint who is right when so many arguments are about opinions and issues, not absolutes. Finally, he recommends that you should rehearse ending an argument gracefully.

Above all, try to begin with yourself, to view your own imperfections with compassion and tolerance. Showing more compassion for yourself – seeing yourself as a person with complex, contradictory, and confusing thoughts and feelings – will enable you to see that in your partner and to react with more understanding and acceptance of your partner’s imperfections.

Ultimately, friendliness and compassion for yourself lead to understanding and closeness with your partner. And solving problems with negotiation and compromise, not conflict and extreme emotions, seems to soothe all our souls.

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  1. In general pretty good stuff here, and while I’m an old school thinker, preferring to turn to good and great literature (all of which are more entertaining and most of which are just as if not more insightful than most self-help books, except perhaps Walker Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos: the last self-help book”), we all should be aware of what’s going where neurobiology and behavioral psychology meet.

    Which is why I was struck by the example you cite a couple where the male notes that saying “yes” seems to get him nowhere, this is an aspect of human behavior that is totally unsurprising when you know that (in general) the autonomic nervous system in human females shuts down at a much slower pace than in the male, and it brought to mind a great quote from the delightful Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, when working to end an argument in his marriage (his wife works in the same field), they remind each other, “Honey, don’t forget what the half-life is on the autonomic nervous system.” I’m assuming I got the quote right, but you can find it somewhere on the NPR program Radio Lab. The point being, the body, the brain chemistry more often than not overrules the imaginary thing we call free will. As for Prof. Sapolsky, you can find him here:

    I admire you for what you do, couples work is very hard, as I discovered long ago when trying to nudge folks out of choosing divorce. But sometimes a marriage has just gone bad, period, and then it should be the job of lawyers to help them have a good divorce — sadly not all lawyers see that as their ultimate goal, and rely too much on the adversarial nature of our legal system.

    One final quote to perhaps aid you in your work, it’s my absolute favorite as I find it applies all day long in so many situations, and especially to ourselves, because we so often forget the things we learn, it’s from the British statesmen, Lord Melbourne: “Neither man nor woman can be worth anything until they have discovered that they are fools. This is the first step to becoming either estimable or agreeable; and until it be take there is no hope. The sooner the discovery is made the better, as there is more time and power for taking advantage of it. Sometimes the great truth is found out too late to apply to it any effectual remedy. Sometimes it is never found at all; and these form the degenerate and inveterate causes of folly, self-conceit and impertinence.”

    Comment by Thomas Acton on August 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm

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