Within all intimate relationships there are great interactions, so-so interactions and destructive interactions. In the early months of a new love, there are always more of the positive and less of the negative. The combination of lust and discovery blankets most conflicts and forgiveness is readily abundant.
Unfortunately, as most relationships mature, couples can find themselves bickering over small things. If those negative interactions, as minor as they may seem at the time, continue and increase, they can eventually pervade the relationship. Slowly, often imperceptibly, they wear away at the partners' expectations of emotional support. If the repeated barbs and retorts continue, they can turn once deep and loving friends into wary adversaries.
Has this bickering pattern happened in your relationship? Have you and your partner lost trust in each other's ability to respond to distress in a caring way? If your productive interactions have diminished and more negative ones increased, you will begin to mix caring messages with provoking ones, and won't allow sufficient time for resolution. In time, the contamination will result in a lack of trust and an increased your reluctance to be vulnerable with each other. Emotional toughness is an enemy to intimacy.
Working with couples for over four decades, I have often witnessed well-intentioned and still-loving partners struggle with the animosity they have unintentionally created. One or the other barely gets out a thought before the other interrupts, defends, invalidates or erases. The conflict escalates, and both end up equally unheard and unknown, laden with misunderstandings that should never have happened. Whatever core issues may have driven their surface squabbles have long been lost and are unlikely to be resolved.
If a couple seeks professional help at that time, they usually will be able to harness the negativity and get to the underlying unresolved issues. With that exposure, the partners can work on understanding and healing them. Breaking those bad habits and replacing them with more productive interactions, are able to stop the superficial bickering.
When I am faced with a couple's willingness to expedite this process, I give them the following assignment. It is easy to do and very successful. Not only are they able to quickly stop their needless bickering, they often regain, and even deepen, their mutual appreciation. They also learn a successful technique they can use in the future if old patterns may again emerge.
The Write Anger/Speak Love Exercise
We start with an agreement that they will do everything they can to eliminate all verbal angry, provoking, sarcastic or undermining comments to the other for a period of one month. I tell them that it will probably be harder than they imagine, but encourage them that, with good will and commitment, they can do it.
Any negative statements that might make their partner feel uncared for, invalidated or unsupported must be communicated only in a written form and saved by both for reference and observation of repeated patterns. I suggest the following guidelines to help get the process started. After time, they can invent whatever works best for them as long as they adhere to not speaking angry or hurtful statements to each other:
1) I am feeling ______________(whatever negative experience is current).
2) You did ______________(whatever action or words that caused distress.
3) I am assuming you felt/thought ______________and that is the reason you said/did it.
4) I wanted to retaliate by saying_______________(whatever you would have normally said).
5) It makes me feel this about you when you say things like _______________(what the person said and any other things similar from the past that might have hurt or made you angry).
6) When I feel like this, I usually __________________(your typical behavior reaction).
7) If I dig deep inside, what I'm really feeling is_______________(more vulnerable feeling).
8) If I had my deepest wish granted right now, I'd want to you feel/think__________.
Here's how a written example might sound:
"I am hurt and angry. You turned your back on me last night when I needed you to hold me. I'm assuming that you were pissed off from how I embarrassed you earlier in front of your friends when I told them you were worried about losing your hair. I wanted to tell you what a jerk you were for being so sensitive and holding it against me later when I was so upset and needed you. It makes me feel like I can't count on you when you're pouting over something I think is superficial and I have a more important issue, like you can't set something aside and have to get your way first. I usually just withhold sex from you for a few days because that seems to be the only way I can get your attention. What I'm really feeling is abandoned when I am scared and overwhelmed and that you don't really love me or you wouldn't do something like this. I wish that you won't just get mad when you read this and make things worse between us."
The partner who reads this is not allowed to verbally comment in any way. If they have a negative reaction or a need to defend, they must do that in written form.
In between the written anger/hurt exercises, the couple is to speak only positive words or phrases which authentically validate or support the other. Many couples, intrigued by this exercise, are concerned that they will not have much to say to each other, usually smiling in the realization of how much bickering has been going on. That very rarely turns out to be true. Though they may feel some awkwardness at the beginning, and even catch themselves slipping back, they eventually get that what is happening is positive, and encouraging.
In order to keep on track, I also suggest that the following internal preparations help if they think about them before they verbally encounter each other with positive words. It may be a little overwhelming at first to remember and internalize, but gets much easier as repeated.
Before speaking to each other:
1) Breathe deeply and think about what you are about to say.
2) Make sure it is authentic
3) Watch for slipping and just start again.
4) Don't pair it with any request or need for approval.
5) When you're through, ask yourself if you were honest and how you felt about leaving care behind you instead of distress.
"Hi. I'm supposed to say something that makes you feel good. Hmmm, let me take a minute to think about it. OK. You weren't impatient and invalidating when I came home from work today. No, that's slipping. Hold on. Let me try again. You smiled encouragingly when I talked about my incompetent and incorrigible boss, when I probably complain way too much about him. I could see how hard you were trying to be patient. No, that still sounds like I'm back-handing. I'll get it right this time. I could see how much you were focusing on my distress, even if it was repetition. Whatever, it felt good."
Again, the partner listening does not comment approval or disapproval, just thanks them for being willing to do the exercise. If they feel cared for, they look for the next time they can say something positive in return.
Within a very short time, the couple has not only separated out their negative feelings/thoughts/actions from their positive ones, they have actually taken more accountability for the hurt or anger they inadvertently caused their partners, and feel more confident to build more successful interactions in the future.