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Have you ever noticed a chronic pain syndrome flaring up right in the middle of a big fight with your partner? Or while stewing in silent resentment about something they did? If so, you’re not alone. Not only have I heard this from my clients, but I’ve experienced it first-hand.
Early on in our relationship, when my partner and I were navigating conflicts, I’d often fall into a pattern of “playing it safe” by holding back what I really felt – only to find myself knotting up into an agonizing migraine. Without finding constructive expression and release, the anger I felt would take up residence in my head and neck, tightening like a vice.
Other times, when we’d argue openly, we would get locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of blame, each of us holding the other responsible for the feelings we were having. During those fights, we’d sometimes both double over in head and neck pain at the same time! As awful as it was, I can’t help seeing the humor in it as I look back on our poor tortured souls.
Happily, things are a lot different in our household these days. As we’ve learned to express our emotions effectively, our life together has become much more enjoyable and navigating conflict is, literally, less painful. I’m still on my journey of recovery from chronic migraines (I’ve managed to cut my headache frequency in half, thanks to Curable). But conflict with my partner has ceased being a pain trigger.
Be direct: Say what you’re actually feeling, not what you think your partner wants to hear.
Be constructive: Help your partner understand which specific behaviors – not broad personality traits – are impacting you, so that you can work together to find a concrete solution.
Be safe: Remember that you are on the same team. Don’t add fuel to the fire by blaming or attacking.
Shifting longstanding patterns of communication isn’t easy, to be sure. But the good news is that with education, practice and a healthy dose of self-compassion, you can make this shift too – even if you’re a life-long conflict avoider like I was.
To help you get started, I’ve constructed a step-by-step guide loosely based on the principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a conflict resolution method developed by psychologist and author Marshall Rosenberg.
It can be challenging to put names to our feelings, especially when there are many layers of emotions all tangled up together. Naming each one with specificity helps us begin to untangle the knots and let each emotion breath.
A great tool to help you do this is the NVC list of universal feelings.
According to Rosenberg, unpleasant feelings come about as a result of having unfulfilled needs. You might think, “I’m angry because I have an unfulfilled need for my partner to wash the damned dishes!” But what Rosenberg means is something more basic – like the need for cooperation, or appreciation.
The NVC list of universal needs can help you identify what’s underlying your emotions.
Before sharing with your partner, take a moment to revisit the NVC lists. This time imagine what your partner might be feeling and needing. A little empathy will go a long way when you’re trying to get them to see your side too.
Step 4: Communicate your feelings and needs.
This is the hardest part. You may need to revisit Steps 1 through 3 until you feel prepared to approach your partner. When you’re ready, invite them to have a conversation without blame or demands – and stay curious about their feelings too. A starting point might sound something like this: “After our fight last week, I’ve been feeling really sad and lonely. I’m longing for some support and understanding. I wonder what you’re feeling?”
Once you and your partner are able to empathize with one another’s feelings and needs, you’ll then be ready to collaborate on finding a constructive solution.
You may be thinking, “That all sounds great in theory but if it were really that easy, I’d be doing it already!” And you’re right. Emotions are messy. They don’t conform to logic. Working with our feelings is like working with small children: it requires an incredible amount of patience, flexibility, and a willingness to accept that things won’t go the way we planned nine times out of ten.
Here are some tips for working effectively with feelings:
1. Practice in the mirror. Before you express your feelings to your partner, practice what you’re going to say first. If you want, run it by a trusted friend. Practicing beforehand will help you stay on track when those unruly emotions start rising up in your throat.
2. Context is everything. Catching your partner when they’re about to head out the door to a stressful job interview is a recipe for disaster. Choose a time and place to talk that feels relatively calm and safe for both of you. You might even want to schedule a time in advanced. We’re much more open and receptive to each other when we don’t feel rushed, distracted or ambushed.
3. Stay grounded. Do a grounding practice like physical exercise or mindful breathing to regulate yourself before you initiate a conversation. Our nervous systems are like tuning forks, and we’re very sensitive to each other’s vibrations – especially with our intimate partner. The calmer your presence, the safer you will feel to your partner. Taking a warm shower is another easy way to soothe your nerve endings before having a talk.
4. Set your partner up for receptivity. Start with appreciation and frame your request as being in service of greater connection with your partner. Here’s an example: “Honey, I love you so much. Right now, there’s something getting in the way of me feeling as connected with you as I’d like to. I’d love to talk about it because I don’t want to feel distant from you.”
5. Small doable pieces. Often, when you’ve been avoiding conflict habitually, there’s not just one simple thing to work out but a whole tangled web of issues that have built up. Address one piece at a time and start with something small. Then work your way up to the bigger stuff as you gradually build your conflict resolution skills as a team. Just like training for a marathon – start with a jog.
One final word on this practice: It’s okay if you “mess up!” Communication is hard. It doesn’t have to go perfectly. Every rupture is an opportunity for repair. Pat yourself on the back for breaking out of your routine and trying something new. And afford your partner the same patience and appreciation as well. They might not respond exactly as you’d hoped the first time around. Give them a while to let it sink in – this is new for them too.
If communication in your relationship feels too volatile to manage this practice on your own, enlisting the support of individual and/or couples counseling is a great idea. As long as you and your partner both have an underlying intention to feel more connected, you can eventually get there even if things get messy – and you can expect that they will!
It’s all part of the journey. Along the way, you just might discover that conflict doesn’t need to be a – literal – pain in the neck.
About Anna Holtzman
Anna Holtzman is a mindbody-oriented psychotherapist based in New York City. She can be found on her website.