When we become defensive, when our backs are up, if we actually take a picture of the brain at that moment, all of the areas responsible for listening and empathizing are dark. This is true when we are 50 years old and when we are 3. That's why it's impossible to reason with a toddler who is in the throes of an emotional storm. That's also one of the reasons why fights in relationships feel so unsatisfying and not only don't resolve anything, but often leave us feeling worse. So what can we do?
If one person in the relationship can bring themselves to call a time out or to say stop, it can be a real step in re-visiting an issue at a later point when both partners have come back to a more open emotional state. Many of the couples that I see begin to describe how in the beginning of couples therapy, as they are learning the dynamic in their relationship and why it can cause so much pain, it becomes easier not to immediately point to the other person when things become tense. This is such an important step in re-building safety and teamwork between two people.
The next step is to begin to talk about the underlying feelings that led to the fight in the first place. These most often have to do with feelings of fear, being unseen, unsupported, misunderstood, failing in the relationship, feeling left out and generally not feeling like the person you love the most has your best interests in mind. We have learned over the past 30 years in the science of emotion that our primary loving relationship is responsible for a great deal of our stability and our sense of self, so that when it goes off the rails, life can become very challenging.
When we can articulate in our relationship what hurts the most, what makes us the most scared, the opposite parts of the brain light up, those that allow us to listen, have compassion and empathize. This often feels backwards at first, because we are socialized to feel like we always have to have a solution, to suck it up, or that if we really reveal what is most painful, others may not be there for us.
The couples I work with, when they begin to find the trust and safety to lean into their partner, report feelings of immense hope, optimism and often feelings of care from another person that they may never have had before in their lives.