Every interaction in your relationship gives you a chance to change the direction of what will come next. We each have the power to shift our part, thus creating the opportunity for a different outcome. It sounds simple, but what does it really mean? Giving in? Admitting we are wrong? No to both! “Shifting your part” means becoming conscious about what is really happening, and stepping out of the relationship “dance” that has become a habit.
The reason your reaction to your partner is so critical isn’t because you are responsible for the whole situation. Rather, it is because you have power to create change (if you want to), and shift the “dance” into something new.
I speak of the dance often because it happens in every relationship! It is the back and forth, predictable negative behaviors that we do. Your partner says something that triggers you, making your stress levels go up. Your protective shield goes up, and you react with some version of fight, flight, or freeze. Your reaction then triggers your partner’s stress to an even higher level. They react, and both your wounds become deeper.
After the dance, two wounded and disconnected humans are left feeling unheard, frustrated, and even angry. Without an effort to repair this back and forth, the relationship will soon be depleted. When you are feeling hurt, it isn’t easy to take responsibility for your part in the dance; however, you can still honor your pain without taking away from your partner’s, by differentiating your boundaries.
"Healthy differentiation involves learning to tolerate disharmony, embrace differences, self-soothe, offer compassion, and set boundaries." Relationship coach, Lashell Lowe-Charde
It's About Separating Yourself
When you are reacting to a situation (which is different from responding), your thoughts may look like: “How could they? Why do they…? How dare they!” These come from a wounded place - the first level of relating. There are two big issues happening at this level.
The first is that the focus is on the self: “I am being treated badly. I am not appreciated.” You aren’t giving any space to your partner. The second problem is that there are no visible boundaries. So when you look at the problem from an outside perspective, there appears to be no separation for who’s problem it is.
For example, he has a problem with something, and deals with it ineffectively by attacking you. You react from a wounded place (I’m hurt), making the problem yours. He again reacts, and now the two of you are “dancing” in circles… With his original problem not being addressed. There is no healing, and the relationship suffers.
The second level of relationships is more about negotiating: you treat me better, and I’ll treat you better. Yes, it’s a step up, but it’s not likely to last - especially if one partner slips up. This is okay for awhile… but who wants to just be OKAY in their relationship? Growing is part of thriving, and to expand your relationship you need to take it up a notch, to the third level.
This requires you to learn to respond (not react) from a place of unconditional love for yourself and your partner. There is separation (differentiation) while still staying close. When we can separate our own "stuff" from the other person’s and see their behavior from a place of unconditional love, we can respond with intention.
How to Change Your Reaction to Your Partner
Let’s use an example to learn how to separate yourself from and change your reaction to your partner, in order to change the negative “dance” in your relationship.
Jeff gets irate when “the house is a mess.” His wife, Diane, understandably feels hurt by the way he communicates his feelings with anger. She thinks to herself, “How could he love me if he keeps treating me this way?”
It makes sense that she prepares herself for these verbal attacks, ready to defend herself and counterattack from this vulnerable place. Yet this only adds to her hurt, because he doesn’t respond with empathy to her reaction - and instead attacks her again. This circular dance has gone on for years, leaving much damage in its wake.
While difficult, one way to stop the cycle is for Diane to respond with unconditional love for herself and Jeff with boundaries. Perhaps Diane can recognize her partner’s need to control things around him, possibly from a feeling of overwhelm and uncertainty. She may need to recognize that he doesn’t have the skills to move through those feelings.
First, she must not take on the problem in the moment. Of course she has a problem with how Jeff is dealing with his problem and how he is treating her; but as soon as Diane makes it about herself (“I feel hurt”), she takes responsibility away from him because now he doesn’t own the problem.
When you take a detour to the complicated back and forth dance, the original issue gets muddled. Rather, Diane needs to stay with the core issue, allowing the problem to belong to Jeff. She can do this by becoming a curious witness to the situation.
Become A Witness
We all know how good it feels to be seen (witnessed), and to have someone listen to us. When Diane listens without reacting and then reflects on the issue, Jeff hears the problem echoed back. This gives him a chance to think about what he wants to say next. We want to invite that frontal cortex to kick in and processing to occur.
You want your partner to get clear about their problem and begin to own it. What is it, how did it get triggered, and where do you need support? Mirroring can help that happen.
For Jeff and Diane, it could look like this:
J: The house is a disaster! It looks like you don’t do anything around here! I can’t find my slippers, because you didn’t clean up. I hate living in a pigsty all the time!
D: The house is a mess, and I haven’t done anything.
Jeff hears out loud what he just said, and can take it in. He may not soften, and could attack Diane again.
J: Exactly! What did you do all day, anyway? It clearly wasn’t anything around the house!
D: I didn’t do anything around the house today.
Again, she mirrors back to him what he is saying, separating his problem from her. Soon, he will realize he doesn’t have to fight anymore, because Diane is not in fight mode. She has given him the opportunity to make a different choice, because she herself did the same.
Ideally, Jeff will start to own what is true for him, and begin to address his issue with more clarity. And Diane can support him in that by staying curious, connected, yet separated. Her own thoughts, feelings, and opinions are not the point just now. She is listening to Jeff, and taking him through the process.
D: I hear you saying that the visual clutter makes you anxious. What would feel supportive for you?
She isn’t offering solutions, but waiting for answers - giving him a chance to put words to what he needs. He may not be able to do this at first, but he will get better over time if given the space to try and to grow.
After his turn is up, Diane can ask to be heard. If Jeff doesn’t know how, she will need to be specific and clear to help him learn.
D: I would like you to mirror my words. Just listen. Hold it all until I get it all out. See it from my perspective and respond from there.
If Jeff can’t do it at that moment, Diane should let him know it’s important, and that she needs him to agree to come back to it ASAP. Another approach could be "I would appreciate it if you would _____." He may need some space to find the right mindset, until he learns how to better separate his “stuff” from hers.
Find a Place for Kindness
In all of this, we need to find space for kindness. Men are not traditionally socialized to be relational, so aren’t always skilled in this area. Women on the other hand, have often learned to sacrifice their needs, and don’t always ask for what they need directly. Practicing will strengthen these “relational muscles”, and requires us to better our relationships with ourselves.
Changing your reaction to your partner into a conscious response is challenging. But with practice - and possibly with guidance from a professional - it will become easier.
It takes two to dance the tango, but only one to change to the cha-cha.