When our partner snaps at us, s/he is generally sending us a distress signal. That distress may be connected to an immediate need that is not being met; to a sense of being overwhelmed; to a feeling of inadequacy or of being misunderstood; or even to an old (painful or uncomfortable) family-of-origin dynamic or trauma that is being triggered.
The ability at such a moment to slow down, to avoid reacting in kind, and to acknowledge the current disconnect is an act of compassion and generosity: “We’re not understanding one another right now. You are clearly distressed. Help me understand what is triggering you so much.”
In addition to preventing further escalation of an already tense moment, such a pause serves both our own personal interest and the general well-being of the relationship. When we respond compassionately to our partner, s/he is more likely to do the same for us.
When we respond reactively and with commensurate impatience and irritability, we fail to recognize that we may be entering “in the middle of a conversation,” albeit an unspoken, and sometimes even an unconscious, one. When we are able to respond compassionately and with curiosity about our partner’s perspective and experience, rather than to become defensive and to counter-attack, we are nurturing a relational climate of warmth, admiration and respect.
The call for compassion and for giving the benefit of the doubt does not negate, of course, the importance of raising issues that are repeatedly offensive, hurtful or disappointing. But such conversations require much thoughtfulness and intentionality if they are to be successful. And they do not contradict the great value of responding to much of what goes on in the daily, stressful lives of long-term couples — non-reactively, non-defensively, and without personalizing.
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Dr. Brent Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy and co-founder of the Couples Clinic in Geneva, Illinois, wisely notes that the single most powerful thing you can do to get your partner to be more responsive to your wants, needs and opinions is to develop the ability to react effectively when she’s NOT being responsive.