Keeping Your Cool

Relationship Design

I know you’ve been there before, you’re in the midst of an intense discussion with your spouse and it moves beyond a conversation about the issue at hand and gets personal. A button has been pushed, or you pushed their button and now it heats up even more.

The personal attacks start, the past is brought up with incredible accuracy and the battles lines are drawn. One of you will be the triumphant victor, the other a vanquished foe.

Incidentally, if you happen to take the other extreme with your spouse, where one or both of you simply shut down and avoid the fight all together, this is the exact same response only at the other end of the spectrum.

So how does this happen?

To boil it down, it’s emotional reactivity. And emotional reactivity simply creates more emotional reactivity.

The most damaging thing to having great relationships is emotional reactivity. So the bottom line is this: you need to be in control of the things you can control, and that starts (and probably ends) with you.

You can spend a great deal of time focusing on things beyond your control. And as soon as this happens, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and just react. The rational side of you shuts down and the instinctual part takes over.

For species survival this is a good thing. But for growing up in marriage and experiencing more it will cause a great deal of problems.

Last time we discussed differentiation levels in relationship. Since marriage is a people growing machine, your differentiation level will increase as you grow up in marriage. The number one way to speed this growth: learn how to soothe your own anxieties, namely your emotional reactivity.

Speaking of differentiation levels, you may have examined where you were on the scale in the last post and determined growth areas. You may have also applied the concept to your spouse and placed them either further up or down the scale than yourself. If so, know this – according to Bowen’s theory, you and your spouse will be roughly the same levels when it comes to differentiation. Otherwise you would not understand or tolerate your spouse’s way of dealing with things.

The beautiful thing about being on the same level, you get to grow together. The risk, if one of you grows and the other chooses not to, you’ll grow apart. But this risk has always been present in marriage.

So how do I learn to better soothe my anxieties?

Here’s a few relational suggestions that may help:

  1. Make the obvious, obvious. If the conversation turns heated, speak up. “Hey, are you wanting to really get into it over this, because I don’t.” Or “it feels like we’re fighting over something petty. What’s really going on?” Think back to the most recent heated discussions and see if you can still feel the tension. Most likely you recognized it in the midst of the moment as well. By recognizing AND acknowledging the obvious build up, you get the chance to choose a different approach, and so does your spouse.
  2. Make the covert, overt. There are countless things going on between people at any given time just below the surface. Your mood, theirs, past hurts, fears, anxieties, joys, frustrations, you get the idea. When you are in a bad mood, it’s probably best to acknowledge this and not seek lengthy discussions about tense topics. Wait until you’re in a better state of being.
  3. You take care of you! No one can take care of you better than you. Remember, no matter how much you try, you can not control another human. They will do almost anything possible to avoid falling under the tyranny of another human. Give your spouse the room to take care of themselves while you take care of you.