SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim shares steps and procedures to follow when you get offended by your partner.
My spouse and I keep getting in these fights where she does something like ignores me when I am trying to talk to her, and this offends me and I get angry and slam a door, which really offends her and makes her feel attacked, which starts a big fight that lasts all week. The fight morphs and quickly becomes about who treats who worse. And in this drawn out fight, no one wins. After days of being mad and miserable we will start to move past it, but only until one of us offends the other again. What can we do to break this cycle of offending each other?
The root cause of these fights is you both functioning in a fear state where you feel unsafe with each other, and this is making you wear what I call "mistreatment glasses." Mistreatment glasses means you are subconsciously looking for mistreatment and offenses that will prove that you aren't safe with your partner and that they are the "bad one." Whatever you are looking for you will find. If you are looking for mistreatment, you will find it. If you are looking for proof your partner loves you, you will find that too.
Unfortunately, almost all of us feel unsafe in the world (at the subconscious level), and this keeps us on the defensive a lot of the time. When you feel unsafe, your ego steps up to try and protect you. It does this through defensiveness and casting the other person as the bad one. That is why it feels like a win (to your ego) when you can show that your partner treated you worse and you are the victim. But this is really not a win; no one wins when you get offended by small things and always see your partner as the enemy.
Below is a process you can use when someone offends you. Following it will help you step back out of ego to see the situation more accurately and respond more maturely.
Note: In this article I am only addressing how to deal with the garden variety of arguments, not situations that involve abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has information on how to identify the warning signs of abuse and how one can get help.
See the other person's bad behavior accurately
When someone behaves badly or offends you, there are four possible reasons for this behavior. Knowing them will help you accurately access what is happening in each situation. The four reasons people behave badly:
- They were oblivious, not paying attention, missed some things, or had inadvertent bad behavior. They didn't mean to disregard you or mistreat you, they were simply not paying attention.
- They are dealing with their own fear issues and their behavior is selfishly focused on finding a sense of safety for themselves. This can include seeking validation, showing off, protecting themselves, being jealous, being controlling, etc. It has been my experience that most bad behavior happens for this reason.
- They are in a serious fear state where they are feeling defensive, working to protect themselves, and seeing you as a threat. This line of thinking may not be accurate (you are probably not a threat), but in this state you look that way to them and this is all they can see.
- They intentionally wanted to hurt you or do you wrong
Which is most likely true in your case? Really think about this and give your partner a little benefit of the doubt, based on the qualities that attracted you to them in the first place. Are they someone who intentionally desires to hurt you? If they are, this may not be a healthy relationship for you to be in. But most of the time, offenses aren't intentional.
If this offense happened for any of the other three reasons, you must step back, stop taking this personally, and choose to not get offended — because it isn't about you. They don't feel safe in the world, and a person who doesn't feel safe has no choice but to focus on finding a sense of safety; they aren't capable of anything else. They may need some professional help to work on their fears around not being good enough and things not being right. So, the negative coping behaviors can be negated.
Be responsible for your response to the offense
You are responsible for your reactions and responses, and this should be your only concern. It is the only thing you have control over and the only thing that matters now. You must choose to respond with love, not fear.
If you get defensive and respond from a fear state, you are now doing the exact same thing the other person did to you. You are demonstrating fear-based bad behavior, and responding badly back is just as bad as responding badly first. It's the same bad behavior driven by the same cause.
Respond to an offense with love
Offenses and your reactions happen fast though, so you will need to practice and prepare ahead of time to be able to remember these steps in the heat of the moment. You might want to read through this procedure daily or replay past offenses that you reacted badly to, running through these steps to see what you should have done.
Procedure for reacting to offenses:
- Recognize your angry, defensive, offended, unbalanced emotions when they are triggered.
- Recognize the desire to place blame for those emotions on the other person and see them as the bad guy.
- Remember the four real reasons people behave badly. Ask yourself: Is this person intentionally trying to hurt you, or could it be one of the other three reasons that aren't about you at all? If it's one of those, you now have two options: Let it go and ignore it (usually the best option), or speak your truth and ask for better treatment, but do it in a loving, validating way.
Procedure for mutually validating conversations:
- See the other person as the same as you. They are not the bad one, and you the good one. You are both good and bad, and you have the same intrinsic value all the time. Do not talk down to the other person or attack them in any way. You are no better than they are.
- Ask if they would be open to talking about the relationship and how you could both make it better.
- Ask how they are feeling about the relationship. Ask if there is anything you do that bothers them, that they would love to have you work on or change. Ask if there is anything you do that bothers or irritates them. Be humble, teachable and willing to make some changes yourself. Be willing to spend time here, really listening and validating their right to feel the way they do. This is the love part of the conversation and this is where you show them that you are committed to showing up for and caring about them.
- Explain how you feel about the behavior they have that bothers you, but do so using more "I" statements than "you" statements. Say things like "when this happens, I feel this way ... ," or "To me, it looks and feels this way and I just wondered if you would be willing to do that differently next time that happens?" Focus on the future behavior you want to see, not the past bad behavior that they can't change. Make sure this is not an attack; it is you sharing how you feel when certain things happen and owning your fear issues.
- Tell them it would really help you if they would consider changing one thing moving forward. Focus on only one change in this conversation (others can wait for another time).
- Repeat the steps 3-5 again if needed. At this point, the other person might have more to say to you or might get defensive. If this happens, go back to step 3 and ask questions and validate their feelings again. Go through steps 3-5 again and again, until you both feel supported, heard and understood.
This article has a lot of steps to follow, which will be hard to remember in the heat of the moment when you get offended. You will need to read this often and do a lot of mental replay after a fight to go back through what happened and see what you could have done differently. That kind of practice really helps, though.
You and your partner may also need some coaching or counseling to work on the underlying fear issues that cause you to feel unsafe with each other. I find most couples who fight a lot need individual coaching to get their subconscious fears under control before they can create a healthy relationship. Always be willing to take this on and work on yourself.
You can do this.
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