A frequent challenge among many couples arises when one is feeling very low, in a depressed or negative state that inevitably affects the other partner. The “feeling low” partner may feel a great need to share his/her intense emotions or to have them recognized and validated. The other partner may be worn down by the negativity; unable to identify (and commiserate) with the other’s intense emotions; or possibly resentful of what feels like unfair blame and criticism.
On a theoretical level, achieving Differentiation (see related articles) from one’s partner’s intense feelings, while maintaining the ability to show compassion, is ultimately the most successful strategy. On a practical level, this can be quite challenging, particularly in the heat of the moment when one is feeling one’s own resentment and hurt. Here are a few practical guidelines to put you on that path towards Differentiation.
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Take a break and change venues, when in a dark space with one another.
Focus on understanding the other’s mood, anger, resentment, claim, state, rather than judging or dismissing it — even if you feels it is exaggerated, unnecessary, or blown out of proportion.
Listen to one another’s stance/feelings without judgment, without pointing a finger or resorting to “yes, I get that, but this is how I felt.” Truly listen in order to understand the other’s state of mind or hurt (even if you have a totally different experience of or reaction to such a situation). Use reflective listening.
Find a way to be accountable for (and apologize for) SOMETHING: “I could have handled situation x differently,” or “I could have responded differently when you got so upset and negative.”
Avoid blowups altogether by using compassion in difficult moments: “You’re having a rough time; let me get you a cup of tea — do you want it with or without lemon?”
Take initiative in doing kind things rather than asking, “What do YOU want?”
Always ask for what you want, rather than pointing a finger: “It would be helpful to me if you didn’t use the phrase x, because that phrase really triggers me.”
Take timeouts if you feel you can’t react/respond with self-control: “I want to bring my best self to this, and I can’t do it at the moment; give me an hour to calm down, and I’ll come discuss this with you.”
Set limits if the need for venting becomes prolonged or excessive; listen generously for a limited (mutually agreed upon, if possible) amount of time, and then move on to other topics.