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Do things go haywire when you and your partner try to talk?

A friend of mine was on vacation with her boyfriend. Suddenly he began to show alarming symptoms. His face went gray. His heart was racing. He felt nauseous and faint and it seemed to her that he was slipping out of life.

But he didn’t want to go to the hospital. “I’ll be okay. Just give me a few minutes.”

Oh, and by the way, they were staying in a very small town in a Central American country, and calling an ambulance was not an option.

My friend didn’t argue. She didn’t panic. She didn’t even get upset. She’s one of those women about whom people say, “She’s good in a crisis.” She just dealt with the realities at hand. “The man I care about might be dying. I can’t let that happen. I’ve got to get things moving.”

So she said, “Honey, we have no choice,” and she packed their bags in no time flat and they sped off to the nearest good hospital.

Everything turned out okay.

So here’s the thing. When the going gets tough, it’s not that the tough get going.

It’s that tough situations require people who don’t get upset.

I’ll go even further, and you may not like what I’m going to say, but it’s the truth:

Getting upset is a luxury:

the only people who can afford it are the people whose services are not required.

Getting upset is for bystanders or people with servants.

Now these are horrifying words for those of us who have been brought up to think that the most important thing in life is to be true to our feelings. If you happen to be upset, you’ve got to let it out. Otherwise you’re a phony who’ll end up with ulcers or tumors.

But in the real world, where people have to deal with the shit life throws at us, getting upset is the last thing we need to bring to any problem. You wake up late and you’re rushing to get out of the house to make an important meeting and you find your car won’t start! Who would EVER prescribe getting upset as the way to deal with that—or any other!—difficult situation.

Now let’s focus this in on marriage.

Marriage is a place where one person is always throwing the other for a loop. In other words, things don’t go smoothly forever. From my husband’s point of view, I am not always well behaved and I am not always bringing him good news, just like my friend’s boyfriend. And he’s like that to me.

But there is a self-healing mechanism in relationships. Talking. Problem-solving talking. “Let’s sit down and figure this out.” You know: the one thing animals can’t do.

This should be easy for two human beings. You discuss the problem and find solutions. And yet, as you well know, so often when you and your partner set out to talk about things, things go haywire. Because, as I’ve said, one or both of you gets upset. Angry, loud, intense, emotional, seemingly unreachable. If you’re on the other side of this, it’s like going from talking with a person to getting pounded with a mallet. Leading to, “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Which just makes things worse.

Where does “getting upset” come from?

  • Fear

  • Feeling helpless or disempowered

  • Feeling ignored or dismissed or mistreated

  • Free floating anger or resentment

  • The tendency to blame the other person for what’s going wrong

  • Lack of focus on or understanding of the task at hand

So you can see how easy and natural it is for people to get upset. As easy as falling off a log. No wonder “talking about things” so often goes haywire. You could almost say it’s a miracle when things don’t go haywire.

Still. When we give in to those feelings, we are sabotaging the very thing we were most wanting to make happen. You and your partner really were wanting to talk about your financial situation or what to do about your in-laws’ request for a visit. Good solutions are required here! No one goes into this wanting to end up pounding the other on the head. Where you end up with no solution AND bad feelings.

This doesn’t have to happen, and you can prevent it.

Here’s how. Three steps.

  1. Acknowledge that you really do want to have a serious, problem-solving conversation. A talk that arrives, at a minimum, at a better understanding between you.

  2. Have a brief survey of what makes either of you lose your shit. “I get upset when I feel you’re dismissing what I have to say.” “I get upset when you put me down.” Fine. So you agree not to do these things that make the other upset.

  3. And then you agree: no one will get upset. You’ll all stay calm. If you need to take a break, you will. But if no one gets upset, nothing goes haywire. Remember, just because you hear something you don’t like, you can deal with it without getting upset. For lots of people, this is a welcome revelation: I don’t have to get upset!

Remember: if you and I are trying to work something out, my getting upset about something is my signaling to you my unwillingness to work things out except on my own terms. Which is exactly why things go haywire. So sad. So unnecessary.

For tons more help, go to Why Couples Fight. Everything you could possibly need is there.


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