You and your partner sit down to talk about an issue, and the next thing you know one of you is slamming the latest issue of Good Housekeeping down on the coffee table, and a few moments later one of you is storming out of the room, slamming the door on the way out. You’re both fuming. And deeply discouraged.
You just can’t talk to each other. Even if there isn’t an issue, a casual conversation about, say, what you’re going to buy your parents for Christmas leads with incredible speed from hurt feelings to anger to some sort of explosion.
WTF! Now our book Why Couples Fight was all about this. We do or say things—often without meaning to—that make our partners feel disempowered. They try to re-empower themselves. And off the two of you go on a cycle of mutual self-re-empowerment that turns a disagreement into a battle. This is the power dynamic in all relationships.
But why is this worse in some relationships than others? Why is it that we have the experience we can talk to one person about anything without things going crazy but when we talk to this person—too often our partner—things become volatile all too quickly.
This is a real thing. I have seen it over and over again both clinically and in everyday life. Volatile relationships and calm ones. What makes for the difference?
I’ll tell you.
There are things I call accelerators and dampeners. Accelerators are things about you or me that will make bad things worse in an interaction. Dampeners will make bad things better.
Let’s list some of the most important of these to see what we can do to have less volatility in our relationships.
Stress. The more crap you’re dealing with in your life, the less crap you can take on board. And if crap—in the form of someone else’s needs!—tries to climb on board, you’ll mobilize to push it off.
Fatigue. Fatigue, interactionally, doesn’t make us sleepy. It makes us irritable and angry.
Low self-esteem. People who feel low self-esteem go around feeling accused by themselves and others, and feel that they are constantly needing to defend themselves against those accusations. Innocent remarks can feel to them like a put down.
Anxiety, feeling unsafe. People with a general sense that things aren’t okay, or that they’re not going to be okay, will be easily angered by anyone whose needs make them feel more unsafe, as well as anyone who doesn’t understand how unsafe they feel.
Tendency to blame others. For every problem, you can ask a person whose fault it is. Some will tend to take responsibility. But with people who usually blame others for whatever happens, even for what they themselves do, they can get enraged if a conversation turns towards their needing to take responsibility.
History of being controlled. It’s simple: the more a person has a history of being controlled in their past, the more they’re going to respond with anger to any perception that you’re trying to control them now. That is, to any attempt to put out a need or viewpoint of your own.
Experiencing too much control in current life. It’s the same with people who suffer from being controlled too much in their current life, say, on their job.
Lack of skills. There’s actually good news here. While most people lack the skills needed to cope with their own volatility, such skills exist and can be learned. We’ll talk about that next.
Someone else is starting to flip their lid? Do these things...
Listen. I don’t just mean “be silent with a listening expression on your face.”
Nothing’s easier to fake than listening. No, by listening I mean showing you hear and understand.
Empathize. You’re yelling at me because I can’t seem to understand your need to have your friend stay with us for a couple of weeks. Okay, so I should try to empathize with that need. Validate that need. Even join in with that need. None of these, by the way, are the same as agreeing. But they do dampen down the volatility.
Ask yourself if it’s really such a big deal. Volatility is, in a way, an agreement between two people that whatever we’re talking about is a super-huge deal, well worth blowing up things over. Really, though? Is it? Now you’ll get nowhere fast trying to tell the other person that their issue isn’t important. Don’t do that! But if you want to dampen things, why not try approaching the whole thing yourself as if it weren’t the end of the world.
Find your safety. Since we mostly escalate out of feeling unsafe, why not take an inner pause to think about how in the long run you are safe with respect to what’s being talked about. Everything will be okay even if you respond calmly and in a friendly way. Just say that to yourself over and over.
Slow things down. When there’s the risk of volatility, pace is everything. Take your time before responding. Say things like, “I need to think about that for a moment.” Or, for example, if you see things heating up, you could say, “You know, I think we’re both getting angry here. I’d really to walk down to the store and when I come back let’s continue talking about this.” Slowing things down is in part why listening is so important.
Sense of humor. I’m not sure what to tell you to do, but I am sure as hell that people with a sense of humor get way less caught up in volatility than those that don’t have one.
Perspective. True story. A well known actress had just gone to an audition and been told she wasn’t right for the part in a Broadway play. She was devastated. She grabbed a cab and started to sob uncontrollably. A few blocks on, looking up through her tears, she saw the cab in front of hers hit a woman who flew over that cab and landed on the street right in front of hers. She jumped out and held the woman’s head in her arms until the ambulance came. (The woman recovered fully.)
That experience taught the actress everything she needed to know about perspective. Yes, it sucks to lose an audition. But that’s nothing compared to almost getting killed by a cab on the mean streets of New York.
This kind of perspective—know what’s really important and what isn’t—has saved countless people from getting caught up in volatility.
Most of all, if the two of you could recognize that volatility itself—the ease with which you both get caught up in an anger spiral—then you can, together, get good at catching yourselves before things go too far. You can also agree to never discuss tough topics when you’re tired, hungry, stressed out, or under time pressure.
Our book Why Couples Fight should help a lot with this!