Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Relationships are tough no matter what else is going on in the world. I often tell clients who are trying to salvage relationships - the hard choice is not leaving - it's doing what it takes to be healthy and fix what is broken.
Regulating our emotions during conflict is one of the most common sources of unresolved conflict in marriage.
Being single allows us to have relational triggers that go unseen, because are not in living with someone who activates those triggers. But then, we get married or live with a partner and all of a sudden stuff "comes up" for us that we've never had to address. Our defenses go up, we get "pokey" or spikey and conflict is born.
In the throws of conflict, our ability to see the other/our partner is drasitcally diminished. I often liken it to a midevil knight. We fasten on the regalia - breast place, armor, spear, chainmeal, and helmut. Imagine a knight entering the room right now. Does all of that protective armor make YOU feel safe? Or does it feel like someone is initiating a battle? In a modern sense, it would be the equivilent of a SWAT member walking into the room with bullet proof vest, big guns, a belt with all kinds of protective gear (I have no idea what's on that belt...Batman type stuff presumably). That doesn't make ME feel safe. It makes me want to protect from any threats. Likewise, our knight can't see very well with that helmut on. He's super protected from anything that might be coming at him, but his field of vision is limited to very small slits in his helmut.
The same is true when we put up our defenses in an argument. Everything goes dark except for what we perceive as a threat. We can't see how hurt our partner is. It may be unclear if their behavior is aggressive or defensive. We can't hear very well, the noise of our own voice trapped inside that helmut and the echo of our fear drowning out anything that comes our way.
Our defenses limit our ability to see well.
So, what do we do? A knight or a SWAT officer would be crazy to take off their protective gear when they sense a threat! I mean, he/she could get hurt.
That's the risk though, isn't it? Every couple that comes into my office takes that risk. Some come in fully cloaked in their protective gear. The most beautiful moment between a couple steeped in conflict is when they take the risk of taking off the protective gear and turn toward their partner. Sometimes, it is indeed not safe. The other person may be too protected to receive vulnerability with vulnerability. They may be so caught up in protective mode, they interpret the bid for closeness as an attack. That makes sense, especially if conflict has been present for a long time in the relationship.
And, it's okay.
The only thing you can control in your relatinships is how you show up, how you react, how you communicate, how you love. Do you enter the room ready for battle? The more you enter calmly and with peace in mind, eyes open and vision clear, I believe two things happen. One, you begin to see the dynamic that has been at play (and your own part in it) much more clearly. Your partner will either begin to see the consistency of your peaceful unarmed presenance and will also "lay down arms" and take off his/her defensive gear, or they won't. And if they don't, that's a good time to seek therapy.
Sometimes, it takes an unbiased third party to help us see what our partner sees and broker peace.