The other day I made a new communication tool! Yes, I’m way more excited than a normal person should be, but being a therapist as long as I have, it’s rare to come up with anything new; it was quite refreshing. This new tool isn’t going to revolutionize anything, but it made the couple I was working with happy, so it has merit. One of the tools I regularly teach is to summarize your point in one sentence like an essay thesis. This can be hard to do, but it’s well worth it for limiting rabbit trail fights. Rabbit trail fights are the fight topics that pop up and distract the couple from the original issue, so lots of things get stirred up with nothing getting resolved. The one person in this couple always had a hard time defining their issue in one sentence and would instead just start talking (aka rambling). Not knowing what the real issue was yet, this person would be talking and not making a lot of sense as they tried to flush out the problem, which in turn made the listening partner frustrated – a pretty common scenario. Add in the fact that one gender is known for not really listening and you have a great recipe for a big fight over someone being hurt. One of my triggers is feeling like I’m wasting time, so if I was married to this just-start-talking person, I’d have a very hard time being patient as they filter through what it is they’re actually trying to say – get to the point! Of course as a therapist, the person I’m working with can take as long as they want because they get an hour of my time. You could repeat the same thing over and over for the full hour and I’d be fine with it: (repeating client) “Bird… bird is the word.” (me) “What’s the word?” (repeating client) “Bird… bird is the word.” (me) “Fascinating.” If you’re paying me, you can pretty much say whatever you want; my wife? Nope… and yes, I’m aware that sounds terrible, but I have things to do… and yes, I’m aware that makes me sound like a woman and I’m okay with that… and yes, I’m aware that I’m rambling right now and if I was the reader, I’d be getting annoyed with me.
Normally, I would suggest the rambling person needs to learn to talk to a friend or journal to flush out their thoughts until they can simplify what they want to say in one sentence to their partner. The problem was, however, this rambling person is an avoider, and like most avoiders, they only get the drive to say something when they’re upset, so if they don’t address their emotion in that moment, they’re not going to say anything, which will add to bottling up and either a bigger fight later or quiet resentment.
So here’s what we came up with: Have a list of the top 10 likely causes for you to be angry. Like a combo menu at a fast food restaurant – That’s the one! This cuts out a lot of the thinking and helps the person skip to what it is that’s actually bugging them, so the couple can now address the actual problem and not fight about the person being upset, not knowing why, and rambling about it.
The fun thing is everyone will have a different list of triggers. For instance, my wife would have a very different list than I would: (her list) He’s too perfect, he’s too amazing, he’s too awesome, etc.
Example 1: Top 10 List of Triggers for Steve (a made up person)
- Feel criticized
- Feel talked down to
- Feel not good enough
- Feel like nothing makes the partner happy
- Partner assumes the worst of me
- Partner is just negative in general
- Not allowed to feel grumpy
- Feel like I’m not allowed to have any emotion that isn’t positive
- Feel blamed for everything
- Feel useless
If this was Steve’s list (a made up person), he could go one step further and try to pinpoint the main one or two things that trigger him. From this list, it seems like there is a theme of failure and hopelessness. For me, I have two main triggers: wasting time or feeling like I’m stupid whether caused by someone being critical or from my own thinking. Knowing this helps me prevent them from affecting me as much and helps my partner know what to watch out for. The bonus is, if you have anxiety issues, these one or two triggers are likely a major source of the overall anxiety problems you feel and knowing can help reduce them.
Other options for this list of triggers can include:
- Feel forgotten
- Feel ignored
- Feel second place to kids or job
- Assumes I can read their mind
- Feel confused
- The other person seems incompetent
- Feels like I’m carrying all the emotional weight
- Feels like I’m carrying all the financial or household weight
- Partner is lazy
- Unfair job distribution
- Affected by HHAALLT: hungry, horny, angry, anxious, lonely, tired
- In physical pain
- Bad day
- Feels like partner is projecting their feelings and problems onto me
- Partner is too harsh
- Partner has a tone or look
- Feel judged
- Feel betrayed
- Reminds of a past hurt
- Partner is defensive
- Feel brushed off
- Feel like partner is bossy or domineering
- Feel powerless
- Feel attacked
- Feel controlled
- Feels like you can’t say anything right
- Feels like everything said gets twisted
- Feels like I’m darned if I do and darned if I don’t – e.g. if I don’t share my feelings I get in trouble, but if I share my hurt or frustration, I get in trouble for not being happy.
This week may you consider what regularly triggers you in order to help prevent it and help your partner know how to better communicate with you and vice versa.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people (like me)