How did you get to a place of healthy, honest, open dialogue?
January 9, 2017 5:13 AM   Subscribe

How did you get to a place of honest, open dialogue re: conflicts and disagreements within your relationship, especially if you have a fear of confrontation/fear of anger/history of abuse (assume no current/past abuse in the relationship)?

What did it take for your partner to get on board, especially if their behavior is within the realm of normal? How do you explain to them that your body and mind are unable to disentangle abusive behavior from ordinary, everyday slights and non-abusive behavior that you wish to change? How do you do focus on the current situation rather than letting this become something bigger than it is? How do you decide when to let it go, also letting go of the fear that letting this one go doesn't mean that you're setting yourself up for a pattern of being mistreated?

How were you able to get to a place where difficult conversations could be brought up and conducted without defensiveness, fear of the other person's defensiveness, or fear of the conversation leading to impasse?

Therapy appointment is booked. But this site has been invaluable in the past; I'd love to hear advice (hopefully something more specific than "couples counseling"), anecdotes, resource recommendations.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Early in our relationship we had a rough patch and we instituted some dedicated time set aside for difficult conversations, where the rules were that you had to be cuddling at the time and you could say anything you like without interruption or judgement as long as it was in the format "I feel ___ when you ___ and I'd prefer ___". It feels artificial as fuck, because it is, but you get used to it. And if you only ever do what comes naturally and easily then you can never really make progress. We stopped doing it after we got through our rough patch but I like to think it embedded some decent habits. That's just our relationship, and we don't really have any (significant) past abuse issues to deal with so I don't know how applicable it is, but I found it a particularly powerful technique as a reserved guy who finds it difficult to talk when emotions are present.
posted by askmeaboutboardgames at 5:54 AM on January 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Try a dialogue-based style of couples therapy. I like Imago - you explore the roots of why you are behaving and feeling a certain way while your partner listens and acknowledges. It teaches you to really listen to each other without getting defensive. It also helps your partner understand your feelings in context. To make up an example: your partner may feel hurt if you flinch when he/she touches you sometimes. If you dialogue about that, you may reflect that it comes from a history of abuse. He/she will realize it is not a product of his/her behavior, learn to empathize with you, and even be able to help you heal in the future. It is a very structured process, and there is no way for the other person to react defensively in the context of the conversation. Though you might focus on certain issues, learning how to interact in this way will help with everyday disagreements too. I'm sure other dialogue-based forms of therapy are great too, this is just the one I'm most familiar with.
posted by beyond_pink at 5:55 AM on January 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm coming at this conversation as the person with less of an abuse history within relationships, mostly because I had much less relationship experience just to start with than my partner. But... Okay. Here is what worked, assuming that you both love each other enough to listen and try even when trying is hard.

First: Talking about what kinds of discussions are less scary for you both to have. For some folks, having face to face discussions about relationship stuff is way too fucking scary, because the moment their partner expresses the slightest negative feeling they panic, flood, and shut down. Sometimes text or written communication like email helps for that. On the other hand, sometimes people panic about text or email because one person tends to be long winded and keeps sending the other massive blocks of text and things. There is no one size fits all communication modality, so talk about what works for you and what doesn't, but most importantly talk about why so that you can both identify a solution that seems likely to help you both talk about scary shit without being overwhelmed.

Second, talk about the shit that seems obvious or goes unsaid. I seriously had an argument about a long-running disagreement about priorities with my partner yesterday that suddenly made sense when they framed the why of their opinion in a way that had never been articulated to me before. There have been a lot of those sorts of moments, and they can really help negotiate situations that seem like insurmountable differences.

Don't expect perfection out of either of you. This shit is fucking hard work. But also, don't frame it to yourselves as an intrinsic quality if you can help it--it's a skill, like learning algebra, and some of us have had better teachers than others till now so it comes easier to some of us. But anyone can do algebra if they're willing to go patiently and find a teacher who cares about them and put in the work to make it make sense. Good relationship communication is like that, as long as you both value it enough to reach out and try when shit gets scary.
posted by sciatrix at 6:10 AM on January 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

In no particular order:

1. Own your feelings -- they're yours, they exist, and only you can really know them and deal with them. You can talk to your partner about your feelings, and you can ask them for help, but it's not your partner's responsibility to make you feel (or not feel) a specific way; you can't control your feelings by controlling their behavior. It's not that anything about your question suggests that you're doing this, just that it can be helpful to keep in mind, especially if your boundaries have gotten rather trampled in the past. Owning your feelings is a way of keeping your boundaries intact, which helps keep both you and your partner safe. Keep in mind that the opposite is also true: your partner shouldn't expect you to fix their feelings for them, and they shouldn't be trying to control their feelings by controlling your behavior.

2. Keep plugging away at self-care, and take responsibility for doing what you need to take care of yourself. This can mean being kind to yourself, going to therapy (it's really good you're doing that!), making sure you get enough sleep and food and exercise, giving yourself enough time to process through the difficult feelings you're dealing with, and whatever else you need.

3. We can all use some help sometimes, so ask your partner for the specific help you want. They won't know what your triggers and fears are and how to help unless you tell them -- and things that seem very obvious to you may not be so obvious to them. Would you like to snuggle in bed when you're talking about something that scares you? Ask. Would you like them to avoid slamming the door loudly when they come inside? Ask. As a corollary of #1 (Own Your Feelings), be aware that they may not always be able to accommodate you. If, for instance, you ask them not to brush their teeth because it triggers you -- they can't do that and still take care of their own needs, but maybe you can work out something else. You may, at times, need to learn to adapt to them as well, and that may mean taking care of yourself and your feelings in some way other than asking them to change their behavior (for instance, going into the bedroom and listening to music while they brush their teeth). Talk to them and work it out.

4. Learn how to observe and talk about your feelings without judgement (see: metacognition). It may help to think of your feelings as a kind of weather. Even as you're caught in the storm, feeling cold and wet and awful, part of your mind can still stand outside of the moment and notice, "That's a heck of a storm. I probably need a raincoat and some shelter right now." Even if there are tears streaming from your eyes, you can still say to yourself (and your partner): "Wow, I feel really sad and scared all of a sudden. I'm going to go to the bedroom and take a little alone time to figure this out -- I'll be back when it passes." Practicing meditation can really help you develop this ability.

5. Learn to say "Thank you" instead of "Sorry". This is a really neat trick that can help both you and your partner feel better over the long run. This comic is a lovely guide.

6. Remember you can change your mind. Sometimes it takes time to fully feel your feelings about something, especially if you're used to shoving them down and ignoring them for your own safety. Let's imagine an example. Maybe your partner said, "Hey, would you mind taking the garbage out at night so it's not sitting out on the curb all day?" and you said, "Sure," because why not? And then two days later as you're going to take out the garbage in the dark, you get a sick awful feeling in the pit of your stomach and realize that this situation is triggering you something fierce. Nobody did anything wrong here -- your partner wasn't wrong to ask, you weren't wrong to agree -- but you didn't have all the important information at the time. You can change your mind. Let your partner know -- "I didn't realize this was going to trigger me when I agreed to it and I'd prefer to find another way to handle it." Talk it out.

7. Keep listening to your feelings about your partner. Do they make you feel safe? Do they treat you with respect? Do they make you feel good about yourself? Do they take care of themselves, too? It may take you time to work these things out -- just keep listening to yourself. If your partner is not treating you right, you'll want to figure out the right way to handle that (talking to your therapist might be a good start). If they are treating you right, remember #5 -- saying "Thank you," can be a powerful way to build love and trust and kindness over time.
posted by ourobouros at 6:30 AM on January 9, 2017 [25 favorites]

I think doing this in real time, in a live conversation, is sort of black diamond level emotional intelligence, so while I think it's important to have face to face convos (or cuddling convos) always be a part of the process, I've found they work best when they're embedded in a larger structure. For me that means reading books on this stuff and then talking about stuff using the books as a framework / conversation prompt. It's kind of like the preparatory homework and emotional labor you do for the conversation itself, if that makes any sense?

I do this myself because it's what works for me, but other things work for other people. The only way you figure out what works is by trying stuff, and then trying to accommodate each other's needs.

Books I can think of off the top of my head: nonviolent communication, conscious loving (written in a very woo style but weirdly effective anyway).

Further, when someone I care about has identified a thing that doesn't work for them or a book that speaks to their experience, I try to understand / read it.

But all of this only matters if they're willing to reciprocate and put in the same amount of emotional labor. Otherwise it'll just end in resentment and anger.

But if this is something you need (and it sounds like it is), if they're not willing to do it, they're not the partner for you.

Good luck. All of this stuff can be done, and you can do it. :)
posted by schadenfrau at 6:33 AM on January 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Seconding everything that schadendrau said, particularly the part where having that kind of dialogue in real time, in a live conversation, requires elite emotional intelligence from both parties.

Mr. Machine and I are not at that level. We work around it by having a mutual, genuine promise to come back to stuff. The promise works at two levels, in that it's both a promise to come back to the issue (and not avoid it and let the matter fester), and to come back (and not blurt something hurtful out in the moment).

Waiting a day or even a few hours lets us calm down, get some perspective, and if we're still hurting, bring it up in a way that is more "us" and less "acting out history of abuse."
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:53 AM on January 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

We have weekly set "feelings time" when we sit together and bring up anything that's been bothering us/talk about what's going well/just generally check in. We make it a special, pleasant time by opening a special beer.

I'm conflict-averse and have trouble disentangling things that are really bothering me from anxious feelings I'm having in the moment, so it's helpful to have the time set aside to bring up any little things that bothered me in the past week but also to take a step back from my immediate reaction. A set time also helps both people come into the conversation in an open and positive mindset.

Feelings time conversations can be anything from "I've been thinking about it and that thing you said Tuesday hurt my feelings some, here's why" to "I'm really nervous for this job interview, can you tell me five times that I'll do well?" to "It seems like we've been a little distant in the past few weeks, is that something you've noticed?"
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:58 AM on January 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agree with schadenfrau.

Individual and couples counseling (for many months) + reading about communication is what has helped. Are you ready to go deep into the origins of your triggers and your own blocks to effective communication? Having two people who are both emotionally mature enough to be reflective and brutally honest about our own behavior really helps. I've had to do a lot of work to become more comfortable expressing how I feel clearly and directly, without it coming out all crazy, angry and distorted by fear of vulnerability.

How do you explain to them that your body and mind are unable to disentangle abusive behavior from ordinary, everyday slights and non-abusive behavior that you wish to change?

Have you tried just saying exactly this?

In terms of anecdotes..

All I can say is that we've spent a lot of time talking about the way we talk to each other. It's an ongoing dialogue at this point -- and that dialogue has been immensely improved by being very specific and clear about how we feel in the present moment and also doing the therapeutic work to figure out why we have the reactions that we do. Over time, we have begun to understand each other's reactions with greater compassion -- this helped me, for example, realize why my "normal way of expressing myself" had a negative impact on my partner, which then motivated me to learn new ways of expressing myself. But we had to work really hard on the compassion bit, because both of us felt that our communication was "normal" and we were both defensive about needing to change .. there were often times when we didn't really understand the other person's perspective, so we had to spend a lot of time explaining (over and over again) how our past has shaped our present way of emoting and relating.. and that required a lot of personal work to gain clarity about what was going on.

It's been a really long, really challenging process but I think the hard work is paying off. We undoubtedly communicate better than we did a year or two years ago -- but the road from there to here was really quite difficult to say the least. I know speaking for myself that if I didn't do the work in this relationship, I would have had to do with with someone else -- so as hard as its been, I'm glad that I did (and am doing) the deep work now rather than later.
posted by Gray Skies at 11:42 AM on January 9, 2017

Great questions. How do you decide when to let it go, also letting go of the fear that letting this one go doesn't mean that you're setting yourself up for a pattern of being mistreated?

I try to sit on everything that ticks me off for at least 24h. After which I have eaten, slept, and so on.

I find putting space between the moment of irritation and possibly bringing it up gives me the time and rest and sanity required to differentiate between "meaningful -- must be discussed," and "trivia -- was just hungry and stressed about something else at the time and thus feeling irritable." Quite often after 24h it falls off into the latter category.

(There are the odd things that are mild enough to always fall into the latter category; if it is a mild irritant that happens over and over and over, then, it might be worth bringing it up -- with an apology that it is silly, and that I know that it is silly, but by the way, I've bought a second X so I can stop being all fussed up that my comb has your hair in it, or whatever bit of nonsense.)

If it does fall into the "I do need to bring this up" category, I try to use the 24h+ pause to (1) calm down so it is communication and not condemnation, (2) think of productive ways to solve the problem, so it's not coming across as "Hey, you do this thing that is crappy and wrong and you suck" but "Hey, it upsets me when X happens and I'm not too sure what to do about that. How would you feel about doing XY when I'm around? Or maybe you have a better idea?"

And do be open about general states of existence -- "I've got a lot of anxiety about X" -- "I've been really struggling with a bit of depression creeping in around the edges lately" -- and keep each other up to date. Not that you have to mention every passing flutter of anxiety, but, it blocks some types of communication, I've found, if you try too hard to struggle through those sorts of very human things alone and pretend everything is fine. (The "everything is fine" lie is a terrible communication-killer, when it is a lie. Even just "I'm feeling a little off but I'm not really sure what it is/not ready to talk about it just yet" is much better. One's distress is usually palpable on some level to one's partner even if it is hard for them to put their finger on it, and "I'm fine" is kind of a screw-you in intimate communication; it's a real barrier to throw up when you're in a fuss and not fine.)

Since the "Everything is fine" lie is a bit of a "trigger" for me -- in re. past abusive relationship dynamics -- one thing I find useful to refer to is: am I being treated with respect? We might be mid-disagreement, but, is there mutual respect? Would I be okay with my daughter being spoken to like this? Lack of respect is a real death knell for a relationship, a real red flag. (Gottman's ""four horsemen" concept expands on the general idea of "respect" in relationships pretty conveniently.)

Only recently after a relatively bad thing happening to us did I realise that, while I thought we talked, we really needed to put serious, well-considered labour into communication for things to keep succeeding. And that's good and normal; love is labour -- a thing I did not fully grok until I had a kid -- real love involves cleaning up somebody else's puke, literally and metaphorically, when needed. It's really a lot of work to have a good relationship -- and not all the labour is unpleasant or difficult, and, as with building anything, there's a lot of satisfaction to be had in putting in a good effort and getting a good result and continuing to create something exceptional between two people.
posted by kmennie at 6:11 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yoga for the formerly abused person. Regular yoga with true openness to the process it unfolds within you as a seeker of peace, truth and joy has been more effective for me getting past abuse than any psychotherapy, hour for hour. If I have been doing regular yoga my way with my spouse is much smoother, I don't get caught on things as much, and I can let go from his bad moods instead of reacting defensively or codependently as well. I didn't see this mentioned so I thought I would add it. In my yoga teacher training there were men who report the same benefits. It helped with boundaries, obsessive rumination and more.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:27 PM on January 12, 2017

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