A colleague of mine recently wrote to me asking for this article again because she found it helpful to some of her clients. When scanning through I couldn’t quite believe that I wrote this nearly 5 years ago! How time flies. If you are in a relationship where conflict can sometimes feel like it gets out of hand quickly or unexpectedly, then hopefully this article will be helpful to you as well.
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations with our partners and we have no idea how we got there or why something so simple has lead to what we can only assume is the end of the world as we know it. Often, emotion is not only incredibly high (which can lead to intellect running low) but also can change from anger to sadness to desperation and back to anger in the same amount of time as it takes to ask what’s wrong. As much as it often doesn’t feel this way, the truth is a good portion of our partners over reactions can sometimes be due to past traumas. In other words, it can have very little to do with you or the socks you left on the floor. The hard part is that your partner, in the moment, is completely and thoroughly convinced that it is all about your socks.
One of my counsellors used to tell me that when we have been triggered by something it is like an iceberg. 10% of the issue lies above water and we are conscious of it (it really is annoying when your dirty socks are left everywhere), and 90% of it lies below the water and is created from our past traumas.
When I speak of trauma it doesn’t necessarily mean an event so severely distressing that your whole life changed. It can mean that, but it can also mean experiencing something, whether that be once or repeatedly, that impacted you on an emotional level and affected your ability to cope. An example of this would be being in relationships where your emotions or needs were never valued or finding out that your partner cheated on you. Neither of these things will necessarily change the outcome of your life forever, but they may have a long-term impact.
How does this play out in your relationship? If you find yourself in a situation where your socks are creating what seems like an unnecessarily strong reaction (they are just socks after all), what you need to realize is that its probably not the socks at all, and may not even be about you, but rather that you have triggered something from their past that caused them a lot of pain.
Nobody wants to go from 0-100 in 0.5 seconds but sometimes our emotional scars can cause us to do it anyways. In these moments I would encourage you to take a step back and realize that this is so much bigger than you and that the best way to deal with it in the moment is to empathize with your partner and let her/him know you are hearing her. If there is something to apologize for, (you did after all leave your socks on the floor even though she’s asked you not to), then apologize. I find saying things like “I hear what you are saying love and I am sorry I forgot to put my socks away again. I didn’t intend to make you feel disrespected” can work wonders in bringing someone back down.
Once your partner is calm I would encourage you to have the conversation around how it makes you feel when she yells at you or how overwhelming or confusing it can be when she goes through so many emotions at once and expects you to be able to really understand what is going on for her.
I know it can seem like I am asking a lot of you to remain calm when your partner is being reactive but doing so will get both of you the results you want. Remember that this is probably due to how your partner was treated in the past and if you think of it, it is always sad to hear that someone caused the one we love a lot of pain. Think of the 10% that is yours and take responsibility for it. Then empathize with your partner for the 90% that isn’t yours but that is still causing her pain.