Most couples genuinely want to love each other well. They just struggle to know how! Learning to communicate well can help build intimacy and resolve conflict; to do this we have to learn how to share our hurts, needs, and expectations.
Much long term buildup of pain in a relationship can be averted through regular, non-threatening debriefing-- a time each spouse comes to a conversation willing to be real and vulnerable, able to be good listener and empathic responder to another’s pain.
Here is an exercise of some questions that can help two people to communicate openly, as well as acknowledge where each partner is weak and needing healing or support.
In a space/time where both parties are undistracted, have each partner take time to talk through an answer to each of the following questions. Partner A should ask partner B all three questions and after partner B has had ample opportunity to answer and process through all three, switch roles and have partner B ask partner A each question. When each partner is processing, the other partner should not debate, defend or challenge the one sharing. This is a time for each spouse to process (to the best of their current ability) the answer to these three questions:
1. Where have you been hurt in our relationship (in a particular time frame-- day/ week/ month etc)?
2. How have you been triggered?
3. Can you recognize any offenses you are holding on to?
Some explanation is necessary to appropriately answer these questions. For this exercise, assume the following explanation of the words: hurt, triggered, and offended.
In relationship, it is inevitable that one person will wound the other person with their words or behaviors. When this happens, it is a legitimate response for a person to be hurt. Sometimes a partner is intentionally mean in the moment. Other times, they have good intentions, but might not realize how their behavior can injure another person. Being hurt is a natural response to injury and in this exercise, the injured party is invited to courageously share the ways that they were hurt by another's words or actions.
For example, Bob yells reactively at Susie when she spills coffee in the car. Susie is hurt by Bob’s yelling, particularly since spilling her coffee was an accident, and she felt demeaned and “reprimanded” by him. Susie is courageous when, at the end of the day, Bob asks her “were there any moments where I hurt you today?”, and she expresses the way that Bob wounded her with his tone and yelling. Bob is at fault in this scenario, and has the opportunity to apologize, ask forgiveness, and empathize with the way his yelling hurt Susie.
In relationship, both partners have potential to be “triggered” by the other partner. This is the result of early wounding and people are triggered when someone’s behavior or words cause them to feel reminded of an earlier feeling or experience. This takes a good bit of self-awareness, but each spouse should ask him/herself—when did I feel a “familiar” feeling that wasn’t necessarily the result of my partner actively hurting me, but that caused a feeling or reaction that was unpleasant to me?
For example, Susie and Bob give each other a hug before leaving for work, but in the middle of the hug, Bob has an unexpected flashback to an incident of childhood sexual abuse that started with a hug. Bob freezes and pulls away, leaving Susie confused as to the sudden coldness she feels from him. In this case, neither Bob nor Susie has done anything to intentionally injure one another. However, in their processing time, if Bob shares with Susie that during their hug he had a flashback, Susie is able to understand that it was not her or her hug that caused Bob’s coldness, but an early wound. As they process this, both partners have an opportunity to share the pain of their past and the ways that “normal” day to day events can remind them and stir up old pain. Ideally, when a person recognizes the areas where they are triggered, they can work with the other partner in the moments where a trigger is occurring and receive the support and encouragement they need to heal from old wounds in the safety of a caring relationship.
In relationship, offense happens when one partner holds onto bitterness or judgment that causes him/her to have a “ready resentment” against the other partner. In this case, one partner chooses to hold onto anger or judgment instead of forgiving, expressing, giving grace, and communicating. This can happens when someone has been hurt in the past, but chooses to hold that against an individual and essentially assumes that they can never/will never change or grow. This can also happen when an individual chooses to hold expectations over another person-- perhaps ones that are difficult to meet or even unknown to the other party. When these expectations (often not communicated) are not met, a partner may nurse an offense that can build up over time. These will damage a relationship from the inside out. When offenses are not brought to light (by the partner holding that offense), and apologized for/ asked for forgiveness for, the hidden offenses can cause a partner to withdraw but then blame the other, often with the other partner having no idea what they have done wrong.
For example, after Bob finishes a can of soda, he often leaves his empty can on the end table in the living room. Every time Susie sees that empty can, she broods over the fact that Bob has left it out. She has never told Bob that it bothers her when he leaves the empty can there, but she gets angry at him when she sees it, and often snaps at him. Susie holds onto this resentment for months at a time before one day she finally snaps at him and tells him that he is a “slob” and attacks him for “expecting her to clean up after him all the time.” Bob is shocked, not having had any intention of injuring Susie in his behavior. However Susie, who has grown offended over many weeks, assumes that Bob behaves this way because he thinks that a woman is the one to clean, etc. Susie is offended and reacts in anger. But, if during a time of sharing, Susie can honestly admit that she is resentful, sharing and owning her own frustration, she can not only clear her own heart by admitting wrongdoing and asking forgiveness, but can also release Bob to be "human." If they need to learn a way to compromise, honest sharing helps to build a bridge insead of a guarded wall!
When not expressed, hurts, triggers, and offenses can accumulate in the heart. When this happens between partners, inner reserves of frustration, pain and even hate can build up to the point of major damage on a relationship. But relationships take work! And one way to keep the waters "clear" in partnership is to take time to vulnerably talk through areas where you are struggling-- whether it be your hurts, triggers, or an offenses.
Abbey Foard MA, LPC, NCC