Emotional Impulse Control is Key to Losing Defensiveness
Note: This is the third of a three-part series.
Suppose your intimate partner said something that hurt your feelings and you retaliate with a cutting remark. You are angry and you try to think of the reasons why s/he was so hurtful to you. So you come up with a story about her that justifies your behavior and your anger. “She’s so insensitive to my feelings.” “No matter what I do for her, it’s never enough.” “If she really loved me, she wouldn’t talk that way to me.” These thoughts are your “answer” to what happened, they are what your mind manufactures in the service of your righteous anger. In fact, these thoughts about her further intensify your emotions, causing you to distance yourself even more from the love you feel for her.
Instead of justifying your feelings with your thoughts, try staying only with your feelings by asking yourself, “What’s inside me that’s making me angry right now?” or “What’s going on that’s making me hurt right now?” You can substitute any other emotion in this question and arrive at the answer that your emotion is trying to signal to you.
Usually you will discover that your intense reaction is due to something greater than the current disagreement your are having with your partner. For instance, when somebody important in your past disapproved of or criticized you, you may have felt “bad” or unlovable. Your intimate partner’s critical message and tone of voice may have re-ignited your emotions from the past.
Now suppose you discover that when you are criticized you feel shame and embarrassment, because deep down within yourself you believe that any criticism must mean that there is something really wrong with you—so wrong that you are unlovable and can’t ever be loved. If you can’t be loved, then eventually your life partner will tire of you and dump you. When you make that connection, you then see that the issue is really your fear of abandonment—which you have associated with your partner’s criticism.
If you choose to share this insight with your partner, you will lose your defensiveness. Such emotional honesty will draw you closer together because your openness about such a painful subject will create a deeper intimacy between the two of you.
One other tool will help you to be less defensive and more emotionally intelligent:
Non-defensive, empathetic listening. Such listening takes place when you defer your own needs for a while to concentrate your attention on your partner while s/he is speaking. Hearing becomes listening only when you give your full attention to what is being said and how it is said. When you really listen, you are certainly not thinking about what you are going to say next or how you will respond.
You show that you’re listening to your partner by: paraphrasing his or her words; making eye contact; nodding your head attentively; leaning toward your partner and by not interrupting. You make your partner feel visible, when s/he speaks to you about something important, and you give your undivided attention. You can even let him/her know you understand by using such romantically intelligent phrases as “I can understand how you can see it like that,” or “Your feelings make sense.”
This is one of the biggest keys to being more romantically intelligent.
Source: Romantic Intelligence by Mary and John Valentis (New Harbinger).
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
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