We had a fight the other day, a big, messy fight that scared us both. Tim and I dug ourselves in so deeply and so quickly, I wondered if this was the moment that would mark the end of our 28-year marriage.
Here we were, living the life we'd dreamed. We were in sunny, beautiful California, plucking fresh fruit right off the tree, generating work, attending an enlivening workshop and escaping yet another East Coast snow storm.
Life was really, really good. Apparently, it was too good.
What's Your Internal Thermostat Setting?
Best-selling authors Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks say that in close relationships, there ultimately is only one problem to solve: how much love and positive energy can we exchange? We are all programmed by our families and by our culture to enjoy a certain amount of love and positive feelings. Once our internal thermostats have reached that limit, we find a way to bring ourselves back down to a more familiar level. For couples, that often means creating a fight after a period of good feeling.
Tim and I have spent much of the last few years raising our internal thermostats. We've created a flow of appreciation and spoken and demonstrated love in our lives. That has helped us to reinvent our relationship, which in the busyness of raising a family and pursuing a high-powered career had become something neither of us wanted. Over the years, we'd repeatedly turned down the flame of love to turn our marriage into a business relationship where we talked mostly about kids and household details, with just the thought of surviving day-to-day.
Adrenaline Kills Love
When I started the fight, the complaint felt like a life-or-death issue. I didn't recognize it as an easy way to bring myself down, to let the critical and suspicious voices in my head take over. And once we really got into it, I felt like I was wearing cement boots that kept me in the fight. Adrenaline coursing through my body quite literally narrowed my vision and my choices.
After a few hours, the adrenaline wore off and I could see that my actions would determine whether we stayed distant or brought ourselves back into loving connection.
None of this was easy. But I knew that resetting myself with four or five deep connected breaths would get me started. I also saw that my complaint was nothing new, just an argument that I was recycling in a more current version.
Being Right Or Being Close
My first choice was whether I was willing to give up being right about the argument. Did I want to be right or be close? In the not-so-distant past, I would likely have given Tim the silent treatment punctuated by a few blasts of blame and criticism over a few days.
This time, I took responsibility for creating the upset and did not criticize myself for it. There was no wringing of hands or big protestations of remorse or drama over the things I said or did. Beating myself up didn't help either of us. I didn't even promise never to fight again. And we stopped talking about the issue because it was clear words were not bringing us any closer.
The Most Important Relationship Move
Instead, I loved myself and began what marriage researcher John Gottman calls one of the most important moves for relationships of any kind: repair -- advances toward the other person that restore the strength of the partnership.
We repaired the tear with small moves. As Tim approached with a bouquet of buds from the farmer's market, I accepted his olive branch and softened enough to let him hug me. He let me know that I couldn't scare him away, no matter what I did. And then we danced, which I know restores my connection to others and myself. As I turned toward him and moved closer, I felt my body telling me how much I loved him.
A fight that might once have dragged on for days of resentment, bitterness and distance, was now fueled by choice, a choice to be willing to reconnect and recommit.
Meg and Tim coach couples that have drifted apart while pursuing careers and raising families rediscover who they are as individuals and show them how to reignite passion in the relationship.
You can read previous blog posts at www.megdennison.com/blog. Go to www.goodtogreatmidlife.com to find out the Three Things that Sabotage Relationships and explore how Meg and Tim could help you create a great relationship in midlife. For more on business relationships, visit www.peekdisruption.com