We sat there and looked at each other through foggy, teary eyes and I told her, “I don’t let anybody ‘in’ unless they worship me or completely destroy my sense of self.”
“Which one am I then?”
She knew the answer — she wore it all over her face.
In that moment, I didn’t have the energy to trade jabs with this person. We’d been prodding at one another through our screens all day already; the click-clack of my texts to her was the only sound I heard for hours at a time.
She cried and told me it wasn’t fair that she could lay herself out there only to be made to feel more alone because my apparent lack of emotion was not the response she wanted.
“I’ve told you exactly how I feel, and you’ve got nothing?”
I didn’t answer her so we sat in silence. I wanted so badly to be alone, but when she was gone I couldn’t go a few days without withdrawal kicking in. There was no way I could see myself getting this close to another person again, but there was also no way I could be content seeing them with someone else.
You’ll know it wasn’t meant to be when seeing them happy disgusts you…
These are angry thoughts, of an angry person, who was trapped in anger most of the time. When everything about emotion scares you so much that you become non-responsive and angry, even though deep down you just want someone to understand and love you, you might be a prime contender for a deep emotional reupholstering. Among the most necessary topics you might dig into: boundaries.
Boundaries are odd in that we generally think of them as external things — walls that we put up to shield us from someone, or something, else. We also, for the most part, don’t like to admit that we need them sometimes, and we like to pretend we have them under control. During a very dark period in my life, lots of people had to put boundaries up against me. Anger was a reactive emotion to confusion, brought on by intimacy that I didn’t want to understand. This in turn led to many interactions such as the one above, with sharp lashes of the tongue creating cuts in the soul of many friends and lovers that have yet to heal.
As a blatantly logical person who has graduated from being completely paralyzed by their emotions, to being able to face and process them, it is still a process to do so; one that is only ever implemented successfully with constant reminders to keep driving the thumbtack that I’ve pricked into my brain deeper into it so that it keeps the notes I’ve stuck there in place. These notes are the result of several years of therapy, and a majority of them are also pulled from the many books on relationships, codependency, trauma, cognitive science, and a whole host of other topics, that sit on my bookshelves. When I first realized that, since a young age, I was someone who had not been equipped to process emotions in a healthy way I — like any other logically overzealous person — devoured information on the subject in hopes that I could “fix” myself.
In a recent relationship, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation, one that would have activated many of the thoughts and feelings expressed in the introduction to this article. When it happened I could feel myself falling back into the anger and frustration that had caused me to respond in kind to those thoughts. Luckily I made the decision to consult my many notes before I acted in a hostile manner and made a mess of a pretty tepid situation.
Yes, I literally walked over to my bookshelf and pulled a book out to reference it and remind myself of the necessary steps. Anger and fear, when triggered, can lead us to make unnecessarily brash decisions. Without getting into the mechanics of our reptilian brain and fight or flight mode, let us just state the obvious: It’s hard to think clearly when we’re overcome with intense emotions, be that extreme sadness, or anger. In addition to that, the knee-jerk reactions that follow these thoughts and emotions are unique (though there is commonality across all of us) to us and our experiences, and may not be perceived as we want them to be by another person because their experiences differ from ours.
When those actions are obviously unhealthy, such as in my case, we need to learn new systems of coping, dealing, or otherwise functioning with other people. While we can’t change the wiring of our brains which create the negative thought, we can, if we work hard enough at it, interfere before the resulting behavior happens. This assumes of course that you are also like me in that you actually want to make a relationship with another human being work.
Back to my bookshelf…
The book I took off the shelf was The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody. It’s an amazing book about being physically, emotionally, and intellectually intimate within relationships. What used to be a foreign idea to me is this concept of arguments being an intimate encounter that you share with a partner. Confrontations, especially those which depended on me to be emotionally open in order to be resolved, were always something I avoided, and if I did enter into one it became a debate to win, rather than a conflict to resolve.
Winning an “argument” should be about diffusing it, so that both parties feel they were heard, and the solution (or way to move forward) was agreed upon by both as well. It shouldn’t be about who “won,” it needs to be a tie, or a win-win situation. Everybody wins, so we can move on, feel closer to each other, and continue to grow.
What Pia reminded me in my time of crisis was that in order to let both sides of a confrontation express themselves, each side also needs to be able to listen to and understand the other — without resorting to impulses brought on by the haze of extreme emotional reactions. After I re-read the chapter, I wrote down the eight steps she lays out for letting a partner express themselves freely, what she calls internal listening boundaries.
These are, unabashedly, her steps recycled in my terms, backed up by my experience.
To shame someone is to imply that they are worthless. Even if you think it’s natural not to do this, it happens all the time. You shame someone when you belittle their feelings as “not real.” It happens easily if you’re in a situation where someone misinterprets the intention behind your actions. Their interpretation could be that you meant to hurt them with a statement or action, when really you didn’t know that it would affect them in that way.
You can’t fathom how they could possibly think that, so you minimize their feelings by insulting them, and saying that they’re “dumb” for even thinking this possible. Remind yourself that their feelings are valuable, and just because they might be incorrect in their interpretation of your actions, it’s still how it made them feel.
Don’t shame — listen, and respond.
In extremely heated arguments this can be hard. It’s always better not to escalate things by yelling. Yelling and screaming are our bodies acting out the emotions going on inside of us. Our behavior starts with a thought, that thought then becomes a physical feeling, then we assign it an emotion. The resulting behavior becomes our outward expression of that thought/feeling/emotion.
When are sad, we cry. When we are angry, we yell. Don’t express your anger by yelling, externalize your thought and feeling process verbally by saying, “when you did X it made me angry.”
Talk firmly and assertively, but don’t yell.
This follows the same line of thinking as shaming. It’s making the other person feel worthless. The word ridicule means to turn something into a joke, to laugh at it. Again, don’t minimize the other person’s feelings because you don’t like them, think they are stupid, or don’t agree with them. In order for you to come to an understanding with each other and end up on the other side of the argument stronger and better, there must be a certain level of respect that goes into the interaction.
If someone is constantly ridiculing you, you can feel pretty confident in the assumption that they lack a certain amount of respect for you. In a sense, it can be a great way to shine a light on negativity you want to avoid and purge from your life if found in a partner.
Be honest. Admit your faults. I know it’s hard, but it’s so much more freeing. I know it’s easy to lie “slightly” by reframing things in your favor. Be upfront, and if you screwed up, cop to it.
Air yourself out and see what happens, don’t hold on to that nagging glob of negativity. This is hard for some people to do
What we know about the truth is limited to what our individual perception of it is at any given moment. Telling the truth is our best guess about what is going on with our thoughts and emotions. Despite the subjectivity of our perceptions of what the truth is, if we do not act on the basis of what we genuinely believe it to be, our attempts at intimacy will fail. Truth’s basis in individual perception is a good reason for us to own it with humility.
I’d also add that being honest with our partners about what we feel is true to us, regardless of how they may perceive it, has a huge impact on creating intimacy with them. Knowing that one can be that transparent with the other, and vice versa, without the need for judgment creates bonds that move beyond the confrontation at hand.
This is where growth happens, so be honest no matter how scary it might be.
Don’t break a commitment for no reason.
You shouldn’t do this in life, in general. Of course things happen, and you make mistakes, but try and be consistent — people like consistency. But don’t make a commitment during an argument or confrontation and then not follow through with it.
If you tell your partner that you are going to explain to them how you feel about something, but only after they do so first, don’t back out afterwards. They took all the risk, and made themselves vulnerable. You not reciprocating is a sign of disrespect, and shows that you don’t care about or value their feelings enough to honor your commitment to them.
Don’t even try to do it. For one thing, trying to manipulate the situation in your favor is unethical (see Be honest above), but if the other person isn’t manipulated, your failed attempt is a glaring example of who you are and something you might try again. Manipulation is also a sign that you think you’re a above someone, or that you’re smarter, or better than. If you’re operating from this mindset, it’s already clear that you are going to lose a piece of yourself in the confrontation.
As someone who has direct experience with trying to lie, manipulate, and wriggle themselves out of owning up to things that I should have, I can tell you, it’s not worth it. In fact, those relationships — business or otherwise — that I tried to manipulate, I am no longer in them, and most of them probably won’t come back.
Just as it is with the rest of these rules, it’s easy to fall into one or more by mistake. It’s okay, we’re only human and we make mistakes. But consciously and consistently trying to manipulate your partner is awful, and some would even argue it’s emotionally abusive. If you love and care about someone, you won’t try to mold and bend them to your will, you love them regardless of their flaws, in all their naked emotional glory.
Don’t be sarcastic.
Just… don’t. Don’t do it! As someone who functions primarily on sarcasm, witty backhanded responses are almost innately built into me, and I need to check myself of this ALL. THE. TIME.
But, “it was just a joke, jeez!”
Like ridiculing and shaming, pivoting to sarcasm during an argument implies disrespect, and it’s belittling. It’s time to act like an adult and deal with a situation, it’s not time to joke around, which is the number one excuse for sarcasm when it’s not pulled off correctly.
The Greek etymology of “sarcastic” literally means “to tear flesh” or “to hurt someone’s feelings or show scorn” — is that a surprise? There is a time and a place for sarcasm, and doing it while being intimate in this way is not the time. In fact just being silent is better than being sarcastic. I’ve actually told partners before that I’m not responding because I only have sarcastic things to say, and they’d be hurtful, so I need some time to process and come up with a better response.
Honest, and true. Some responded positively to this, and some didn’t. Oh well, I can’t control how they act or process the things that I say, I only have control over me, and that was as honest and forthright as I could be in that moment.
Part of showing respect for others and their feelings is letting them fully express themselves. Interrupting them when they’re trying to explain their feelings to you does not help mend the situation. You will have your time to say your piece, and if you’d like to not be interrupted, then don’t do it to them. We’re not talking about a political debate here, we’re talking about an intimate argument with someone you love in which you’re both showing your humanity to each other.
The Latin root of “interruption” means to break (continuity of) something. Don’t break, heal and mend. Interrupting creates a fracture in the whole of your partnership.
I’m not a relationship expert. In fact I’m far from it. I only write about these rules because they’ve helped me to achieve an emotional stability I never thought possible. So much so that I have them written down on a note card that I have with me, so that I never forget them.
Last month I had lunch with a friend and I was explaining to them the rules, thoughts, and processes that eventually became this article, and their response was, “well, yeah, duh, doesn’t everyone act that way?” Of course everyone should act that way, but do they? I certainly didn’t, and I was never able to attain or keep what I wanted.