Jack and Harriet were fighting for days when they first came to my office. They walked in separately and sat as far away from each other as they possibly could. What was wrong? Harriet blurted out, “He just won’t listen, all he cares about is being right.” To which Jack fired back, “If you weren’t so angry all the time I might listen more.” They were at loggerheads. This negative cycle happens frequently among couples in trouble.
The cycle works like this. First, a disagreement or some kind of action by one of them triggers anger or irritation. Something is said, then the other person becomes defensive or critical in return, then more and more until they either shut down or escalate into full blown warfare. At first glance we can see that no one is listening. What happens is both parties become more and more frustrated and they up the ante until it gets louder and louder. This critical flashpoint can make emotional trust dangerous and causes couples to shut down, sometimes to never open up again.
Jack and Harriet described a conflict where they were defending and criticizing endlessly. Out of utter frustration Jack smacked Harriet’s favorite hanging plant. It flew across the room and in mid-flight the plant died, and something inside her died as well. These are pivotal moments in a relationship where there is an intention to hurt. Unintentional hurt is one thing but to deliberately try to hurt someone is different. Even though it may be about wanting to get back at the other person, it may also be a desperate attempt to be heard. The same is true for screaming, yelling, name calling, swearing, or lying, cheating or stealing. These are relationship killers.
But the most effective tool to remedy this situation and the one thing that will save your relationship is a process I call WAVE. It’s simple, powerful and very effective. It means Wait, Acknowledge, Validate and Empathize. Sounds easy, well it’s not, it takes practice.
Let me cover them one by one.
WAIT– First wait and calm down. Take as long as necessary. There has to be an agreement to wait and give yourself some time to ask yourself the one question. If this was all my fault what would it be? Then WAIT to hear what your partner has to say before you say anything. Each of you should have a turn telling your story about how you are feeling. The best way is to put it in the future. People never agree on the past so why bother. Say what you want, need and value in all future actions or activities. This gives the other person the ability to do it right and get out of the feeling of being cornered as the bad one.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – This is the magic pill. To acknowledge your partner is the most effective way to de-escalate and argument. Let them know that you get what they are saying, even if you have to repeat it back but make it your own and tell a story about what they said, make it real. Add some concern or compassion to it and that will immediately calm it down. Acknowledgement does not mean agreement, it means that you heard what your partner said and you get it. Many times this will end the argument right there.
VALIDATION – This means that we can see that they have a right to their opinion no matter how irrational it may seem. We all want to be validated for being who we are, no matter what. Loving someone is not unconditional, Love is conditional, it is alive and requires attention if it’s going to survive. The work of relationships revolves around validation about who one is. It’s a celebration of differences, not an ideal version. Couples cannot be in lock step about their beliefs, interests or activities because everyone has different experiences and cultures.
EMPATHY – This is the most critical and difficult of all. We define empathy as “Vicarious introspection.” This description was coined by Heinz Kohut the founder of Self Psychology. Empathy is not sympathy. It’s about being able to see our partner as they truly are, not necessarily from our own particular point of view. The attempt is to see it as they see it. From behind their eyes. This process takes some doing but is the most important skill we can learn in relationship life.
So the next time a flash of anger comes over you and your partner, stop, wait and calm down, then listen, acknowledge, validate and emphasize. The next step is to brain storm about some ideas that will make it better next time. All behavior and emotions have meaning, they are about something. The trick is to see it.