It’s hard to imagine Nancy & Barry, clearly in love and at peace with 42 years together, getting into dramatic conflicts in their earlier years. Currently, their favorite activities are grand-parenting and quiet time together, yet Nancy recalls times when they would “Pull the car up stopping on the side of the road screaming and yelling at each other, taking off the wedding ring and throwing it in the bushes.”
Barry admits that his “MO is to cut and run, countless times I’ve gotten in the car and driven away.” Once a conflict gets to this level of escalation and wedding rings are getting tossed, sanity is no longer on board.
How do we navigate heated issues so that they don’t result in damage? The emotion of anger can be productive, but how we show our anger can be very counterproductive, and we can say things that we regret and hurt the people we love.
Barry openly talks about his issues with anger. In his King Baby chapter he shares, “I could bore you telling you the origins of my anger and rage, but it doesn’t make any difference…it caused problems. We start going at each other and there are no boundaries, with no boundaries there’s no respect. I don’t know how to shut up, pause when agitated.”
“Pause when agitated” may be the best piece of advice for avoiding an explosion. Oftentimes, we don’t recognize that we are getting agitated, and feeding the agitation by lashing out can act like a drug. It feels good in the moment, but leaves a horrible hangover.
Another way of saying “pause when agitated,” is to think it through. Barry shares that, “You have to learn to take responsibility and quickly say ‘I am sorry I realize I am being snappy’… the adrenaline comes, anger happens…it’s like domestic violence, provoked is not an acceptable excuse. Taking responsibility for who you are and your own emotions- it’s hard work.”
Blaming our emotions and our reactions on our partner never works.
Healthy relationships don’t just happen; they require effort by both people to take responsibility for their emotions, and in some cases learn how to communicate. We don’t automatically have the tools to communicate effectively, and when emotions are running the show we have to take a step back and train ourselves how and when to talk about sensitive issues. As Nancy points out, sometimes you simply have to learn the best times to talk to each other. If your partner is upset or tired, perhaps it isn’t the best time to talk.
Reading our bodies is another way to recognize conflict. If our heart starts racing, and we witness our tone becoming defensive, it’s best to take a time out. Taking a time out is not about avoiding conflict or difficult conversations. It is rather insurance for a more productive conversation, and ensuring that we have resources on board that allow us to speak with love and vulnerability and understanding, vs. reacting and defending.
It takes a lot of practice working with difficult emotions, our partners have the ability to trigger our deepest emotions, and sometimes those emotions aren’t all pleasant.