I’ve been snappy with my partner lately. I’ve been triggered by or annoyed with others lately too, but I’ve been able to stay calm and mature about things in those situations. It’s just that he’s the closest person to me right now; I see him every day and because of that he bears the brunt of my frustrations.
As the Mills Brothers sing:
“You always hurt the one you love, the one you should not hurt at all;
You always take the sweetest rose, and crush it till the petals fall;
You always break the kindest heart, with a hasty word you can’t recall;
So if I broke your heart last night, it’s because I love you most of all.”
It’s unfortunate but true. It’s like our drops of anger and frustration ripple out and touch the people who are closest to us, yet never seem to reach those who we feel more emotionally distant from.
When I was visiting a friend this summer, I noticed he lacked appreciation for his wife and I witnessed bickering between the two of them. I was single at the time and told myself that once I was in a relationship I would always appreciate my partner and not pick pointless fights.
Well….. it was a nice thought, too bad it was unrealistic.
Our close relationships are stable so we are willing to put more stress on them. We may not put stress on new or causal relationships because we know the foundation isn’t there to keep them in place if we lash out. Acquaintances get to enjoy our good behaviour because we know that they may not be as forgiving with our outbursts as those who we know love us despite our occasional moodiness.
I know that snapping at an acquaintance will damage the relationship, so I don’t do it. It seems I can get away with snapping at my partner, but it still does damage. It may not be immediately noticeable as it would with someone who is less invested in me, but over time it’s the cumulative damage that does a relationship in.
Lashing out at my partner is actually a betrayal to the relationship. Brené Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly that betrayal isn’t always a huge event like deception or cheating, but that “there is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust…the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship.”
I’ve noticed over the last month how much I have taken my relationship for granted and haven’t put in the effort I would like to.
Part of it is because I’m overwhelmed in a few areas of life and I haven’t been motivated to work on practicing proper communication or even just be more self-aware. It’s like my emotional intelligence plummets when I’m stressed out. Or, it might be more accurate to say that I choose to play emotionally ignorant. I know when I’m being unreasonable, yet I let it escalate when I could just slow down, say what I am feeling, and stay open to the other person.
Another factor is that I sometimes feel justified in lashing out. I seem to think I’m entitled to take advantage of the fact that he feels bad for some of his behaviour back when we were dating. Those things have all been talked about, yet the resistant side of me likes to leverage what I can in order to stay in unhealthy patterns. When I was in a program at The Haven this past September, one of my facilitators bought to my attention how smoothy my intentions can shift from wanting to connect to wanting to punish. Sometimes my manipulations are so subtle that they are almost undetectable, even by me.
The reasons for slipping into reactivity are layered. While feeling overwhelmed and having a slight desire to punish certainly contribute to my snappiness, it’s mainly due to a fear of being vulnerable myself, of owning up to things that are bothering me. Picking a fight transfers the pain and discomfort from me to someone else. Anger is a great deflector; when used in this way it not only turns me away from my own discomfort, it also repels anyone from wanting to try find out what is really going on for me. They fear being on the receiving end of more anger, so they step back. It’s a bit tragic because instead of sharing and taking an opportunity to connect, I deflect and push the other person away.
It’s horrible to treat someone so close to me as if they are not human, not vulnerable, and not going to be hurt as a result of my behaviour towards them. I don’t want to scold or punish my partner. This is someone I have chosen to grow with, to enjoy life with, to work on things with and work through things with.
He’s willing to hear me out and engage with me when I am frustrated, which is a first in my relationship experience. But, I’ve been venting my frustration on him too frequently and I can tell it is wearing on him, especially since he and I both know that I can express frustration or bring up an issue without being snappy about it.
I’m feeling sad because I know I can do better than this. I have tools for communication and I know how to use them. I want a better relationship with him and with myself. I don’t like who I am in those moments when I’m complaining, ungrateful, or holding grudges.
Laying with him last night I felt so much appreciation for our shared values and how we want to grow personally and spiritually together. I thought of how good we are at supporting each other and how much we do care about one another. In times like that, when I allow my tenderness to come through, it’s hard to imagine bickering about things that don’t’ really matter.
It’s unrealistic to think that I will never fall into a mood around a loved one, it’s going to happen. The practice is in being more aware of when I am doing it and then stepping out of my comfort zone by being vulnerable and speaking about what is going on with me and why it matters.
Taking a pause often helps with this since sometimes I don’t know even know why I’m reacting until I take a few moments to look deeper inside. Anger is a secondary emotion, and it’s usually fear or sadness that lies underneath. Although expressing anger is healthy, it shouldn’t be paired with criticism, dismissiveness, or defensiveness, and certainly not without also looking at what is underneath that anger.
Appreciation is also key in preventing futile fights. Conflict is inevitable in relationships, but it can’t be happening all the time. There also has to be enough positive experiences to make up for the negative ones. Dr John Gottman, a therapist and researcher found that for longevity in a relationship the ratio of positive to negative experiences needs to be 5:1.
I’ve decided to express more appreciation for my partner and for myself. It’s not just appreciation for the other that prevents unnecessary arguments; appreciation for myself is also essential because it encourages me to be more open and willing to share what is really going on for me.
Photo: Silvestri Matteo