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Is it time to break up, or is there hope?


Have you been in a conflict with someone you really care about? You want to be patient and understanding of where they're coming from. You also need to be heard and tell them what you're thinking. You’re upset. You're trying to control your emotions and not say things that will hurt. And then you get to this point where it feels like you've hit a wall. The other person is defensive, angry, arguing, and not really listening to you, so you just want to throw your hands up in the air and walk away. Sometimes you do that and you feel terrible afterward because you really do love and care about this person, but you feel so hopeless and desperate. You just feel like they're not listening to you. 

This is Alisa Goodwin, Snell, welcome to the Lasting Love Podcast, where we feature Real Life, Real People, and Real Love. This kind of situation is fairly common, and it's painful and scary. I want to help you to solve how to get through to the other person, keep yourself in a good place, feel hopeful, and bring resolution. 

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(full podcast transcript below)

Have you ever been in a conflict with someone you really care about? You want to be patient and understanding of where they're coming from. You also really need to be heard and tell them what you're thinking. You’re upset. You're trying to control your emotions and not say things that will hurt. And then you get to this point where all of a sudden it feels like you've just hit a wall, and the other person is defensive and angry or arguing and not really listening to you, and you just feel like you want to throw your hands up in the air and walk away. Sometimes you even do that and you feel terrible afterward because you really do love and care about this person. But you feel so hopeless and desperate, and you just feel like they're not listening to you. 

This is Alisa Goodwin, Snell, welcome to the Lasting Love Podcast, where we feature Real Life, Real People, and Real Love. This kind of situation is fairly common, and it's painful and scary. I want to help you to solve how to get through to the other person, keep yourself in a good place, feel hopeful, and bring resolution. 

We're going to be talking today about Tim and Tara. We've talked about them in previous podcasts. I really enjoy working with both of them. I felt like they were good people. They had a good heart and good intentions. But man, their conflict was so difficult to breakthrough. 

So one of the first things that I did with them was talking about the research by John Gottman. I spent 17 years as a Marriage and Family Therapist. So I have that background, education, and experience. As a Dating and Relationship Strategist, I am not attempting to do marriage counseling. It's an education and skill-development program. I focus on educational principles, concepts, and try to help people to understand how they could relate to them, and practice and apply those techniques. 

When I first started working with Tim and Tara, it was really important to me that they understand John Gottman and his theory of repair attempts. When there are high conflict situations we need to put positives in. One of the most important parts of solving problems as a couple is that we don't forget that maintaining five positives to every one negative is an absolute essential to long-term, successful relationships. And when couples are coming in to see me usually we're looking at maybe one positive to every one negative or sometimes more negatives to positives. And they really need to increase that. 

I had previously asked them to have specific days of the week where they would not talk about their problems. But instead, focus on the other things that are going right in their relationship and just enjoy the relationship. Go on dates. Go do fun things and focus on what's going right between them instead of just focusing on what's going wrong. So when they came back to see me for their next appointment, they were in a much better place, they were doing really well. And I was enthused by that. 

But as soon as we started talking about the problems, it all started falling apart. Now usually I will let my clients escalate like that for a little bit. So I can observe what it looks like and see where the problem is. You guys have experienced this, I'm sure in your relationships as well. It starts off, okay. You’re trying to listen to each other. And then all of a sudden someone's body language gets more intense, their voice gets more intense, they say things that are more all or nothing or critical and hopeless in nature, accusing. So what I was observing with them was invaluable. My job is not to mediate their conflicts, but to pause them and say, okay, timeout, let's have you guys practice that breathing exercise. You're getting elevated. Did you notice that Tara was actually offering a repair attempt? Did you recognize that? What does that repair attempt mean? 

So let me break this down into some specifics for you. Repair attempts are anything that we do to try to de-escalate the situation. So if I am upset, and I take some deep breaths, I sit back, I lean back, I say things like, “Well, I hear what you're saying,” I touch you, smile. recognize and appreciate some of your efforts, validate some of your feelings, say things like, “We’ll figure this out together. I love you,” if I use endearing names like honey, sweet, hard, baby, all of those things can be repaired attempts. Even saying to someone, “Hey, we're getting off track. Can we go back to this other topic?” or “Hey, can we talk about that issue later? I brought up a different issue and we're getting off-topic. And if you really want to talk about that issue, can we talk about that another time, this conversation is about this.” Even though that seems like it's confrontational, it's actually a repair attempt because you're trying to keep the conversation productive and on track. 

Oftentimes, couples will just escalate and throw more and more and more issues into one conversation. And it feels totally overwhelming and like there's no way we're ever going to succeed at this. It just devastates the relationship and the energy in the conversation. So let me give you an example. If I come home and I say to my husband, “Hey, you didn't take the trash out? Like you said, you would.” Ask yourself this question, “Do you see that as a comment, a complaint, criticism, or contempt?" Now, I always ask my clients this question, just as I did with Tim and Tara, because I need to see what kind of answer they give. 

So again, if I were to say to my husband, "Hey, you didn't take the trash out like you said, you would,” that may trigger some people to believe that I'm criticizing them when in actuality, this is just a comment. One reason why it feels like a criticism is because I'm using the noun, you. I could soften it by saying, “Hey, I noticed that the trash hasn't been taken out. I thought that was something you were going to do.” I can use a softer startup, by using an I noticed, I feel, I was thinking. Using an I statement like that, but in its technical term, even using the phrase of, you didn't take the trash out like you said you would, that statement and phrase is still a comment. It's a statement of fact. That's all it is. It's a statement of fact, the picture has been hung a little bit too far to the right, is a statement of fact. Now you may argue with me from your perspective, whether or not it's a little to the right, but it's still something that is just an observation. 

Now, if I were to say to you, “I'm disappointed, you didn't take the trash out like you said you would.” “I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I'm sad, I'm hurt. You didn't take the trash out?” is that a comment, a complaint, criticism, or contempt? Think that through. How would you take that, “I'm sad and disappointed and frustrated” or “I'm angry you didn't take the trash out”? Now some of you might say, “Well, it depends on how it said.” Based off of the way I said it, would it be a comment complaint, criticism, or contempt? The way I said it, “I'm sad, I'm hurt. You didn't take the trash out.” “I'm frustrated. You didn't take the trash out.” Now, technically, it's a complaint. And the reason it's a complaint is because it's a statement of fact, the trash hasn't been taken out, or is the statement about what I'm observing as a fact, what I think is a fact you didn't take the trash out. It's a statement of fact. And it's a feeling. 

So a comment is a statement of fact, a complaint is a statement of fact, with how I feel about it. Now, if I take it to the next level, “You always forget to take out the trash. You never do what you say you're going to do. You don't care about me. You don't keep your promises.” If I say that, it has now become elevated to a criticism. 

What makes something a criticism is that you make it all or nothing, you always, you never. You're taking one statement of fact or one piece of information or fact that you think you're seeing and you're making it mean a whole lot more. It always rains. No, it doesn't always rain. So anything like that we're globalizing it and making it bigger than the actual physical description or behavior would be, that is a criticism. 

If I come home, and I throw three complaints together, it now becomes elevated like a criticism. So let's imagine I come home and I'm like, “Hey, you left your shoes out. I noticed that the dishes aren't done.” If I just stop right there, I've got two complaints or two comments. But if I keep adding more, it starts to feel like a criticism. “I can deal with the shoes. I didn't put the shoes away. You're right. Let me get that taken care of real quick.” “Oh, you're right. I didn't get the dishes done.” I can deal with those two specific things because I can fix them right away. But if I were to say, “You didn't take the trash out. Your shoes haven't been put away. The dishes haven't been done.” Now I've elevated it to a criticism. 

If I keep bringing up things from the past, and this is something that, unfortunately, Tim and Tara did a lot of and it really sabotages their communication, because when I keep bringing up things from the past, if it's been more than two weeks, I would hope that things have been resolved. And so if I keep bringing things up, it's like I'm wiping away all the progress, all the effort that you put into resolving this. I’m bringing it up as if I'm still upset and frustrated by it or you haven't improved and that can be really tough. Especially when we're going back a couple of months ago, six months ago, a year ago, 15 years ago, very sabotaging, to bring up something that's that far back. And hopefully, we will have done more empathizing, more personal responsibility, more healing along the way. So if it's been healed, why are we still bringing it up? 

Now, obviously, sometimes people bring things up because it feels like the same behavior keeps going and going and going. But if it's the same behavior that keeps going, why not just focus on this behavior? We don't need to say, “Every week you forget to take out the trash. It's been a problem since we first got married. Why do you not remember to take out the trash? What does it mean? Does it mean you don't love me? Or are you just trying to make me angry?” It's so much more effective to say, "Hey, what can we do so that we can get the trash taken out every week? Let's problem solve a couple of options.” So that is criticism, making it global all or nothing, bringing up the past as if you haven't forgiven it yet, and bringing up three or more complaints. 

Now contempt, “You are lazy. You are unreliable. You are selfish. You're a jerk.” That is contempt. So in the work by John Gottman, he talked about how those who are on track for divorce, the ones who have the highest probability of potentially getting divorce, do a lot of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. He refers to these as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

I like to focus on what the masters are doing right? Instead of focusing on the disasters, if what we focus on is everything that's going wrong. That's what we're going to keep creating. I like to focus on what does it look like when things are going right. And so when someone is giving a repair attempt, when somebody is making a comment or making a complaint, I want to see that as them investing in, sacrificing, empathizing, showing self-control, taking personal responsibility to communicate effectively. I want to recognize those efforts because a repair attempt only works if the other person recognizes and receives it. So what was happening with Tim and Tara, they weren't using a lot of always, or never, or “you're so lazy,” or “you're so selfish” kinds of statements, but they weren't using and receiving each other's repair attempts. 

So when they would make comments and they would make complaints, they would react to the other person as if they were being attacked, even though the basic structure of what they were saying was only a comment or complaint. We have to have enough room for comments and complaints in our relationships, or we'll never solve anything. And it's our individual responsibility to calm down when somebody is giving us a comment or complaint because we've got to be able to see the issue that's there and engage appropriately and recognize the person's efforts to communicate effectively. And when we recognize that, not only does it calm us, but it calms the other person. 

So for instance, a repair attempt, if I were to come home and say, "You left your shoes out,” or “you didn't take the trash out like you said you would,” a repair attempt on my husband's part would be, “Oh, hey, you're right. Let me get to that real quick.” That's a repair attempt. It's taking responsibility. It's validating my feelings. It’s suggesting something that he would do to fix it. All of those things are repair attempts. 

When I'm frustrated, sad, or hurt, and he turns his body towards me, he maintains eye contact, he periodically looks at me or touches me, but he's keeping his body turned towards me, those are repair attempts. When he gives me a compliment when I acknowledge his kindness and his patience, and I say, “Thank you. I know this is a hard conversation. I really appreciate that we can talk about things. And that we do really well with this. I love that you touched me, I love that you were so quick to recognize that I wanted the trash taken out. Thank you so much for that.” When I recognize his repair attempt, I give him a repair attempt back, it calms him. 

So I refer to that as both the self-soothing techniques of calming myself down, but also partner-soothing, where I am showing them and engaging in a way that actually helps the limbic system of the brain to calm down. So when we feel like we're under attack, we go into this fight or flight mode. And the limbic system of the brain takes over and is that fight or flight center of the brain, that primal part of our brain that developed first when we were babies. It takes another 20 plus years before the frontal lobes of the brain become fully developed, and are powerful enough to help us overcome and respond to that limbic system of the brain. As we develop and grow, we start to learn how to calm ourselves, to change our thoughts. We start to develop more of our personality or self-control, our ability to self soothe, or do emotion regulation. Our personality becomes more developed as the frontal lobes are developing. Impulse control, reasoning, logic, personality, emotion regulation comes from the frontal lobes of the brain. And it does take time for those to develop. 

Now the challenge for Tim and Tara, was that Tim would start to hear Tara. The one thing Tara did that was more of a criticism was that she would overwhelm the conversation by taking over what they were talking about, and trying to defend her position with a lot of facts and details about why she feels and thinks the way she does. And the challenge with that was that she would be bringing things up from the past. Her core fear was being silenced or controlled, or that people are trying to shut her down. And so, unfortunately, when someone would say, “Well, wait, that's, you know, that's been six months, that was three months ago.” And they would try to get her to stop going that direction and stay in the present. And that would include me too, she'd get really quite emotional upset. Her voice would become raised. What she was saying would become a little louder. And because we're trying to be polite, and empathetic, I would stop and listen. Plus, I wanted to hear what she had to say. 

But I quickly started to realize that she was not recognizing his partner-soothing, and she was not self-soothing. And the more she would do that, and she got into her story, the more desperate he would start to feel, He would start to feel that he can't get through to her. She's being selfish. She's making it about her, I was talking about something I was struggling with. She has empathy problems. And the more that that story is becoming created, in his mind, even though he's not saying those things, the more that story is becoming created, he's creating a contemptuous story where he doesn't trust her in his mind. His heart rate starts to increase, his blood pressure starts to increase, that fight or flight instinct with him starts to increase, and I could just see this reasonable couple, escalate so quickly, right in front of me. And I was in many ways powerless to get them to stop. 

Once they started down that path, they would flip so quickly into this defensive mode where they weren't listening to each other. So at that point, I asked them to meet with me individually, I had already begun teaching them about conflict resolution and repair attempts and the need for comments and complaints and self-soothing, and partner soothing, the importance of touch, and the importance of recognizing the other person's repair attempts and responding to it. I'd already been teaching them these important concepts. I was hoping they were applying it but in front of me, it was like it didn't make a difference. And the reason being is that once that limbic system of the brain kicks in reasoning, logic, and impulse control are out the door for them. But these are reasonable people. 

So as I started to meet with them individually, I was better able to confront some of their behaviors in an empathetic way, so that they would feel less defensive and likely to shut me down because I really am listening to them, which was really important for Tara. Validation was hugely important. And I was able to say to Tara, the challenge of how you communicate is you use details to communicate. It’s really important to you that you can tell your story and use details, but your conclusions when you tell me, “Well, that's not true because of this, and this and this,” I already believed your conclusion. I didn't need the details. I already trust your judgment. I already believe that you've thought a lot about this. I already see where you're coming from. You've given me just enough examples, that I can see that you're reasonable, and you're logical. And I know that if you go into the history, I'll probably understand it. I don't need the details. I trust your conclusion. I trust your feelings and your opinions. I need you to shorten your story so that you can just give me the conclusion. And I can give you more ways to interact in a way that's going to change the dynamic because the way you're doing this is overwhelming your guys' conversation. And fortunately, I was able to confront her enough and talk about self-soothing, and she felt safe enough with me that she started working on it, and what's beautiful about this is it shows how much she was willing to take personal responsibility. 

These were just deeply-seated behaviors that were also based off of deeply seated fears. And through that empathy and enough personal responsibility on her part, she started trying to apply this and say, “My conclusions are good enough people, believe me, I'm credible. I don't need the details.” And by not going through the detail, she's not getting more and more agitated and upset because she's replaying two and three years or a whole lifetime of painful experiences that she wants us to understand. The more you relive that, the more your limbic system of your brain, and those chemicals, are replicating those memories and experiences. We do trigger with our memories, those emotions, so learning to self-soothe and calm that down, and to accept his repair attempts is part of her learning how to trigger the relaxation response, and to feel recovery and resolution and comfort when with him in conflict, rather than what she was experiencing previously. 

Interestingly, though, he was having the same experience. He was quieter. He did have strong opinions and feelings, but he tended to get overrun by her in those ways. And then he tended to feel more like a victim. And he would do his own internal story that played to his fears. But he was having the same problem, that limbic system of the brain was taking over. And he needed to do more self-soothing, so I actually encouraged Tim, to get a pulse oximeter, so that he could see what his heart rate and his oxygenation levels were looking like during conflict. I also focused with Tim on offering more clear repair attempts and inviting her to a behavior that would help both of them to calm down, while still validating her feelings on some level. 

And so as we were processing the conversations and communications, he felt really defeated and hopeless, and like he was ready to walk away from the relationship because he just felt like they could not do conflict resolution. Now, remember, they've been in a relationship for some time, but remember, they're hoping to get married. This is somebody he loves and is very invested in. But because they don't do conflict resolution very well, he is so terrified of another divorce and putting his kids through that he's ready to walk away. Plus, he can't handle the stress. He has a really hard time dealing with conflict and the anxiety that it gives him and how difficult it is for him to feel like he and his partner are engaged in partner-soothing behavior; where they've learned that my partner can be part of the relaxation response, and the resolution, and the soothing experience, where I get to feel like my partner and I are coming together, and I get the chemicals that come from that connection and resolution of our issues. 

He wasn't experiencing that with her instead, he's in distress. And then they start to act a little more normal. And so he's kind of getting his head above water, and then he's in distress. And then it's kind of getting his head above water. But he doesn't really feel safe, because they're regularly going through this distress. Anyway, so he started focusing on recognizing his heart rate, she was doing her part he was doing his part. And one of the things I asked him to do is when you start to feel your heart rate, and you see your heart rate increasing, just tell her, “Hey, let's take a break, and come back in five minutes.” And that was wonderful. Because she was also willing to do this. She was willing to participate and respond to his timeout request. And because she was willing to say in the middle of a story, things are getting elevated, he's upset, and he's like, “Hey, my heart is starting to increase. Can we take a break? Let’s just calm down. Let's just take a few minutes and come back." 

What was so awesome about this, is she would come back with more empathy. She’s calmed down that limbic system of her brain because she's not ramping up. She’s breathing. She's decreasing that anger and frustration. She's not telling the story because he's not listening to the story. Because they're taking a break, she comes back after calming that down. She has more empathy. And she's able to say to him, “Okay, this is what I think you were trying to say. And here's a more condensed version of what I was trying to say.” He’s in a better place. She’s in a better place. He's giving her touch. She's saying things like, “They will figure this out. And I really appreciate this. And, you know, I think we did better with this part this time.” They were touching each other and comforting each other. And more and more, they were starting to find that they could take some smaller issues and succeed with it, there were a few issues that were still really difficult for them to talk about, without getting way too elevated. And so those issues, I was requesting that they not focus on until they were with me so that I could help mediate and make it a safer experience for both of them since they were still struggling. 

The wonderful thing about this is because they were gonna wait to talk with me, what are they doing in between, they're having fun. They’re putting positives and they're remembering to focus on what's going right. I really like my clients to focus on what is going right in their relationship and do more of that and do more of that do more of that. We don't have control over the problems, but we do have control over the positives we're putting into a relationship. 

So another client of mine asked me this question, “Well, what are the positives?” Well, when we're in conflict repair attempts are positives. They help me to get my head above the water, right? Calming myself down, noticing the other person calming themselves down, the times when we touch, all of those things are positives that we put in.  The fact that I take the time to actually think about how I'm going to say something so that soft startup conversation is easier for you to receive. Because I start off in a softer way, like, "Hey, it seems to me that the trash didn’t get taken out. I thought that was something you were going to do” that would be a soft startup, not everybody needs to do it that way. But if I'm trying to do it that way, and you recognize that effort, that's a repair attempt. 

However, repair attempts are a way that we keep the other person from feeling so much distress. If that person recognizes the repair attempt, “Hey, baby, I see I understand, Will you forgive me? I didn't mean to make you feel that way. That wasn't my intent. Will you trust me that I really don't feel that way, even though it was said in a way that could be taken that way? Will you trust me that I really don't, I appreciate it, I forgive you.” those are all repair attempts we can do in conflict. And every time we do that, our head comes a little bit more above water. And we don't feel quite so distressed. And we feel more comfortable that we feel safe in the relationship because the person is trying with us. And we see them trying, which means we see them caring, and I'm important to you because you're trying. 

However, doing that in conflict isn't enough. We need to be having positive experiences and laughing and touching and kissing and doing fun things and investing in our hobbies and interests. So when you are in distress, one of the most powerful things you can do when you're in distress, is planning some fun things, take a break from your problems, and say, “Let's come back to this on Friday. And in the meantime, let's have fun.” Let's talk about other things, put some structure into when and how you address certain issues. And then make sure you come back and address those or people will only bring them up spontaneously because you never get around to it when you're scheduling to have difficult conversations. 

But in the meantime, not only can I focus on doing repair attempts when in conflict, which calms me and calms you. But not only can I focus on that when in conflict, but we can put all of this positive into the bank account of our relationship where we feel fully fed, and confident and loved, and needed. So that when conflict does come up, it's not so distressing to us because we're already in a positive place. It takes five positives to every one negative to have a long-term successful relationship. You have control over those positives. Lasting Love is a journey. 

This is about Real life, Real People, and Real Love. Love is a choice, even though we feel loved and it feels like it's happening to us. Most of the time. At some point, we go from loving someone and liking someone to realizing they're a real person with real feelings in a real-life situation. And we have to make the choice to do real love. So Love is a choice but lasting Love is a skill, and it's a skill you can master. 

This is Alisa Goodwin Snell with the Lasting Love Podcast. If you're anxious to start your own Lasting Love Journey, please join me at the LastingLoveAcademy.com where you can take advantage of my 30 years of expertise and extensive Lasting Love Academy for as little as $27 a month. It just depends on the results you want to get. And we offer personalized, Lasting Love Action Plans that are based on a thorough needs assessment of your individual situation, so that you can maximize your experience with the Lasting Love Academy and make sure it's tailored specifically to your needs. With our strategy sessions, you get hands-on expertise throughout your Lasting Love Journey. 

If you've enjoyed this podcast. One of the best ways you can say thank you for the time, and it actually takes me a lot of time to create these podcasts, one of the best ways you can thank me for my time is to share this podcast with those that you feel would benefit from it. 

And please remember to LIKE, SUBSCRIBE, or go to the LastnigLoveAcademy.com to get on my email list so I can keep you informed of new podcasts when they become available. This is Alisa Goodwin Snell. I look forward to helping you to have a life and life-changing experience. 

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