Unlikely Fact Number Six:

Only one person, at any one time, is permitted to be upset.

Have you ever noticed that some people are really good at soothing a crying baby and that others fail miserably in their attempts to calm her down?  Why is that?  Most psychologists agree that the difference lies in the comfort level of the caretaker.  It appears that infants and young children are exquisitely tuned in to the emotional states of the persons caring for them.  When they sense that a particular caretaker is confident and self assured—emotional states perceived by babies from certain subtle nonverbal cues such as how comfortably yet securely the caretaker is holding them—the baby relaxes.  Conversely, a baby that senses that the person holding him is anxious or uncertain will have difficulty being soothed.

The conclusions we reached from the above observations with children can be applied in a similar way to our interactions with our partners.   If our spouse comes to us worried, frightened, or upset about any particular issue, our primary obligation is to remain calm.  Just as we don’t cry when the baby starts crying, so too we don’t get to become depressed when our spouse is sad, to become fearful when our spouse is frightened, or to become angry when our spouse is mad (even when he or she is mad at us.)  Our unwillingness or inability to remain calm in the face of his or her upsetness guarantees that things will only get worse. And conversely, our ability to remain calm in the face of an anxious, depressed, or angry partner can go a long way toward soothing his or her emotional upset.

Whether it’s about soothing a crying baby or comforting an upset spouse our job remains the same—to soothe ourselves.  Unfortunately, all too often the individuals I see in my practice report that simply expressing upsetness about an issue is reason enough to trigger a similar upset in their partner.

For example, one partner says he’s disappointed that she left dirty dishes on the kitchen table whereupon she then accuses him of leaving dirty socks on the bedroom floor.  Or she says he forgot to bring home the milk he had promised to buy.  His rejoinder is that she once again left the car with almost no gas in the tank. In these marriages no one ever gets to be upset without the other becoming equally distraught.

These defensively hurtful reactions are quite common among individuals in unhappy marriages.  John Gottman, a foremost researcher on the causes of marital distress, has written that defensiveness is one of the four high probability predictors of divorce.  However, the good news is that defensive behavior of this sort can be significantly reduced when couples agree to utilize a few simple problem solving techniques.

Space constraints prevent me from offering no more than a brief description of one helpful technique to address a problem I call “defensive cross complaining.” This occurs when someone responds to a partner’s complaint with a complaint of their own.

The following dialogue is a brief excerpt from a marital therapy session in which the problem of defensive cross complaining is addressed.  It’s a fairly typical example of a session with the type of couple I am likely to see in my practice, one in which the upset of one partner becomes the trigger for the upset of the other.

Dr Bass:  “As I listen to both of you speak I am struck by the fact that neither of you seems to do a particularly good job of responding to your partner’s emotional pain.”

Client:  “Well if you were being unjustly accused of something, wouldn’t you want to defend yourself?”

Dr Bass:  “Yes I would. But just because I feel like doing something doesn’t mean that I necessarily do it.  Isn’t it true that all of us at certain times do not say what is really on our minds?  I would guess that when your boss says something you disagree with, you don’t always tell her what you really think of her idea. Especially if she’s the type of boss who is not really interested in what you think.”

Client: “But that’s my boss. Are you saying I can’t talk frankly and honestly to my own spouse?  Are you saying that I can’t give him my honest feedback?”

Dr. Bass: “If you want the conversation to go well you will need to know what to say.  My suggestion is that it is almost always helpful to say to your partner the three most loving words any spouse can communicate to their husband or wife. Do you know what those words are?”

Client:  A blank stare  followed by total silence.

Dr. Bass:  “The three most loving words are, ‘Tell me more.'”

Client:  More blank stares and silence.

Dr. Bass: “When our spouse comes to us with an issue, concern or complaint, he or she typically does not want us to respond with a suggestion or with a complaint of our own. Our partner is often simply asking to be heard and perhaps to offer him or her nothing more than a “shoulder to cry on.”  When we say “tell me more” we are not agreeing or disagreeing with our spouse.  We are not approving of their perspective or disapproving of their point of view.  We are simply offering him or her the opportunity to be heard.  Later on I might teach you some specific “active listening” skills.  But for now all you need to do is to be willing to hear your partner out.  If he is unhappy with your behavior, when you say “tell me more” you are simply asking for more data. You are providing your partner with validation that he or she has the right to be heard. And more often than not, simply listening to our partner’s point of view is all that is needed to address his or her concern.”

This conversation may go on for quite awhile.  At some point in the conversation, one of two things is likely to happen. The first possibility is that the couple will announce that they “get it” and that they are willing to try out this new way of interacting.

And the second possibility is that one member of the couple will insist that he or she should not have to remain calm in the face of an unfair accusation or criticism.  That’s when one of them will ask me why they can’t stand up for what they believe.

And that’s my cue for reminding them that their marriage is much more likely to succeed if both are willing to agree to unlikely fact number six. Mainly that only one person, at a time, is permitted to be upset.

Click for Unlikely Fact Number Seven