Sometimes we feel the angriest with the ones we love most, and we find ourselves in repeating patterns of reactivity, when what we really crave is to be heard and understood by our partners. How do we break through this and get our needs and wants met?
We feel more and react more with those closest to us. This may be because they matter to us more or simply because we spend more time with them. We have needs and wants that go unmet because we haven’t learned how to communicate them successfully. We often create expectations and then get disappointed when what we want is not fulfilled by our partner, child, parents, siblings…
Sometimes, we project all of our fear and anxiety onto them. This worsens the problem because we are projecting ‘our stuff’ and this gives them the experience of not being seen or heard. Meanwhile, they are probably doing a similar thing: projecting their fears and anxieties on us. And we feel unseen and unheard. It’s a wonder people get along at all considering all of the projection that seems to be happening!
Sometimes when I am working with couples I notice that the anger they are each expressing prevents them from hearing each other. I act as their interpreter. Through me they are able to hear what the other person is saying more clearly. I translate what they are saying based on my understanding of what each one is feeling and needing. This enables them to have the experience of being understood by both their partner and me, which can help in decreasing their anxiety and anger, and allow them to be more fully available to listen to what is being said by their partner.
Our anger decreases when we feel we are being heard and understood. The irritations and frustrations couples sometimes have with each other are often focused on times when one or the other person is judging them or making generalizations; not really seeing them, only seeing the judgments of them.
These judgments and generalizations can show up in seemingly benign ways like “You never say goodbye when you leave the house.”, or “Why do I always have to put the groceries away?”
These statements can be really frustrating for the person they are addressing because they are not including the times when the addressee did say goodbye and did put the groceries away. It may be true that they don’t do it as frequently as their partner likes, but I have found that when we explore these statements it is not true that these things were “never” done. If we start with words like “never and always” we have a much higher chance of stimulating irritation and anger in the person we are addressing. It is my experience that people do not like to be told what they always and never do. By using “never and always”, we are essentially saying I don’t see you, because if I really saw you, I would remember the times when you did these and other things like them.
Generalizations and judgments very often lead to frustration and anger. I have found that human beings have a strong desire to be fully seen, accepted and included. It can be very painful to be judged and pigeonholed. It is no wonder we can sometimes react in anger.
We can learn to use our anger to help us identify what is going on internally and to teach us to know ourselves better, so we can learn to communicate our needs and wants:
- When we know what we want, we have a better chance of getting our needs met.
- When we feel heard and understood by our partner we generally feel better and are often more compassionate.
- When we feel heard and understood we are more open to hear and understand our partner’s needs.
- When there is an atmosphere of understanding, partners are more likely to support each other in getting needs and wants met.
For example if partner A says “You never say goodbye when you leave,” and that stimulates anger in partner B, then partner B has an opportunity to use the reactive anger response as a signal, to then take some time, take some deep breaths, and take a moment to see what is really happening inside. When we understand more fully what our reactivity is we can often calm down and speak. We could say something like:
“When you say things like I never say goodbye, I get really frustrated because I remember plenty of times when I’ve said goodbye and I’d like to be recognized for that. “
“Well I don’t remember. When?”
“Last week when I left for the gym and you were on the computer, I actually kissed you on the cheek and said goodbye.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
“Well, I’m glad you remembered. Now do you see why it can be frustrating for me to hear you say, “I never say goodbye”?
“Yeah, I can see that”
“Why is it important for you to hear me say goodbye when I leave? If I know what it means to you I might remember to say it more often. “
“I don’t know, I guess it shows that you care about me and that you are thinking about me, that I’m important to you.”
“Oh, well you are important to me and it didn’t occur to me that my not saying goodbye would indicate that you weren’t. I’ll try and be better about remembering to say it.
“Thanks, that would be nice.”
Are you interested in hearing what’s going on for me when I don’t say goodbye when I am leaving?
“Usually, I am running really late, as you know I do, and it takes all my focus just to get out the door.”
“I know, and that’s probably another reason I get upset when you don’t say goodbye. I hate how you can be so late sometimes and get so crazed before you leave. And I especially hate it when we are going someplace together!”
“Yeah. I guess you’d probably like it to be easier, less chaotic and more peaceful.”
“I understand that, I would actually like that too. This is an issue I have struggled with for so long that I have given up trying to change it.”
“Sounds like you feel pretty hopeless about this-you’d like to change but don’t know how.”
“Would you like some support from me around this? Is there something I could do that might be helpful to you?
A dialogue like this takes practice but is achievable. If we take the time for a clear and focused conversation, expressing what our needs are (consideration, awareness, support, love, connection, etc.), then we can create a foundation for more understanding and ease for the future.
The hardest part is looking at ourselves when we want to blame our partners. Without clear understanding of our needs and wants we can’t expect our partners to fulfill them. So we MUST look within first, gain the awareness of what we are wanting and needing, then turn to our partners and ask for them.