Time to read: 12 minutes
Let me set the stage for you.
It was a Saturday morning and we had some awesome plans later that day to hang out with our friends in the country and stay overnight. Michael had left for a wedding in Louisiana and planned to land in Austin just in time to make it for our gathering. He was going to drive straight from the airport and meet us there.
This meant that I was responsible for packing up all the things we needed for the weekend – this includes the baby, our labradoodle Otis and our friend’s rescue dog Molly who we were babysitting – then drive solo an hour to our destination. It also feels important to mention that I was days away from my period – if you know, you know.
Friday night I did my best to pack up as much as I could while Shai was asleep. I got the dog food, our clothes, diapers and other miscellaneous items in the car knowing that when Shai was awake, packing would be trickier. I went to sleep having nearly everything except our food for the weekend packed up.
I felt like a rock star.
I love the feeling of being able to get things done on my own and was excited to impress Michael with how I could “do it all”. Then, Shai decided this was the night he would wake up every other hour. He is already not the greatest sleeper and when my period is approaching it seems that my milk supply is affected – the taste changes and my supply reduces – until it passes.
Saturday morning I wake up sleep deprived, majorly irritable and without Michael’s support. This is the breeding ground for a fight. With all these factors combined it will take just a little bit of anything to push me over the edge.
I wake up Shai, feed the dogs, nurse and then put him in the highchair for some food. If you have done baby led weaning before – a method of adding foods to a baby’s diet that goes straight to finger foods, skipping purees and mashed foods – you know just how messy it gets. I plan to let him eat, pack up and then clean up the mess right before we hit the road – I had it all mapped out perfectly.
With Shai content and safe in the high chair I capitalize on the opportunity to pack up a cooler with all the food we need and put it in the car. As soon as I open the front door our dog Otis catches a glimpse of a beautiful black lab walking by and just cannot help himself – off he goes to sniff its butt. I drop the cooler, run after Otis and profusely apologize to the innocent lady that is now a little shaken up, as you would be when charged by a random dog – even though he is fluffy, harmless and adorable. The heat in my body starts to rise as the little things getting in my way start piling up.
I get Otis back in the house, pick up the cooler (which is really heavy by the way) and try to get it in the trunk of my Civic. After trying a few configurations I am realizing that it is not going to fit. I roll the cooler inside and of course, Shai is crying in his high chair ready to get out after making a huge mess. Tension continues building in my chest and I am about to boil over.
The cooler is too big, I can’t put it in the back seat because we have 2 dogs and a car seat, I am tired, PMSing, Shai is crying, his food is all over the place and on top of it all I want to get him to our destination before his first nap of the day at 9am.
Michael is nowhere to be found.
Let the fight begin.
Every part of my being wants something about this to be Michael’s fault so I can release some of this energy onto him. I grab my phone and see a text message from him:
“Good morning sweetie. How was your night?”
I swear you could probably have seen the steam coming off my body. How was my NIGHT?! Where do I even begin!?
Even though I know it’s probably the worst idea, I call him:
Michael: “Hey Babe, whats up?”
Adee: “How did you expect us to eat this weekend?” my voice is oozing with attitude – or what I call “sass”.
Michael: “Ummm… I figured you would pack up what we have in the fridge?”
Adee: “Well, did you realize that the cooler doesn’t fit in my car?!”
Adee: I go through the morning’s events with him finishing the story with “I have to deal with all this right now I can’t talk.”
Then I hang up. Keep in mind, I called him.
I start unloading the cooler with Shai in one arm and my mind is racing. How could Michael not plan ahead? What was he thinking expecting me to travel an hour alone with the baby and 2 dogs? Why on Earth would he schedule a flight to be so close to when we already had a commitment? The momentum behind my energy is too strong and even though I know I am being irrational I just can’t help myself.
I call him back:
Adee: “I am just not gonna go. I am staying home – this is too much.”
Michael: still cool as a cucumber “Okay, should I call our friends and cancel the trip?”
Adee: “No, you go. I am just staying home.”
I hang up again.
The fact that he is so calm honestly irritates me even more. How can he be so calm when my world is in such shambles? My attitude, negative energy and hanging up on him is not riling him up the way the irritation inside me is looking for.
Michael texts: “I am really sorry this has been such a tough morning.”
My response: “No you’re not.”
This is where he brings in the jedi master move. Humour.
Michael texts: “haha either you’re kidding or you’re pain body is just begging for a fight. I love you and will see you in a couple hours. If it will help I can ask one of our friends to come over, pick up the ice chest and bring it. Otherwise I could just go back to the house before meeting y’all.”
I read the first part of the message and part of my bubble bursts. My lips are ever so slightly curling into a smile as the rest of my body is trying its hardest to keep it from getting too big.
The pain-body is a term coined by author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle – his book A New Earth is one that completely changed my life. It is referring to emotional pain that is stored in the body leaving behind a sort of residue. This negative energy field occupies your body and mind – it can be active or dormant. Once it is activated the pain body takes you over and all you want is more pain. Maybe you want to inflict pain, or you want to suffer pain, or both.
Yes, my pain body was activated, begging for a fight and Michael was having none of it.
As soon as he called it out with the little “haha” as if he was teasing my pain body – an entity that is not me but instead overtaking me – I laugh, because it is true. Laughter immediately softens me up and brings me into the present moment. I could take a second and see what I was doing and how completely ridiculous it was.
Yes, a lot went wrong this morning and when looking back after the emotions settled there are some things we both could do better to have avoided the intensity of this:
- Improved preparation
- Better communication
- Not planning trips so close together
- Having support readily available when one of us is alone managing the house
None of this was anyone’s fault and picking a fight – especially in this manner – will only make it worse.
I responded to his text: “Okay. I am going to figure it out and meet you there.”
I took my time packing, gave up on maintaining Shai’s sleep schedule and met up with our friends. I hugged Michael as soon as I saw him and the two of us burst into laughter knowing we narrowly missed the dreaded pain body.
If you were to hit rewind a few years and replayed this exact same scenario the outcome would have been dramatically different.
A couple scenarios that may have taken place:
- I would have been way nastier and more spiteful. Yes, self regulation has been a huge practice for me and clearly I still have room for improvement.
- I may have followed through on not going to the gathering and ruined our whole weekend.
- Michael would have fed into the tension and taken my attitude personally leading him to either completely withdraw from me (which would have driven me even more mad) or gotten angry at me for being angry.
- I would have blamed him for all that went wrong out loud instead of just in my head.
- It could have taken us days to fully recover.
The list goes on and on.
Looking back at my life I feel terrible for all my past relationships. I was loud, spiteful and obnoxious when we fought. Whether it was a best friend or an intimate partner emotions would rise within me and completely overwhelm me.
My pain body was very strong and I know I burned relationships due to my lack of self control. Maybe the story above still seems like a nasty fight to you but relative to where I started this is an absolute heroic feat. This includes when Michael and I first got together. I sometimes don’t even understand how he stayed with me when my fighting style was so abrasive.
The thing is, I knew I was being that way and even so, I couldn’t control it. It was as if I was a fly on the wall watching myself unravel and unwind. Something inside me (Eckhart calls it the pain body) wanted to inflict pain and suffering – on myself and the other. After the dust settled I was left full of shame and embarrassment over my reaction – bringing those memories up today still feels tender.
Our mentor and relationship coach Annie Lalla gave us a reframe on conflict early on in our relationship. She said something along the lines of
“It is not the frequency in which you fight that matters but the speed in which you can move through it”.
This has helped us really see that in many ways conflict is a gift.
Through conflict we:
Learn about each other
When a conflict arises it generally means that one of our boundaries has been crossed, a need has not been met or some implicit emotion or feeling is not being expressed. Conflict gives us the opportunity to get it out onto the table and grow.
For example –
Through conflict Michael and I realized that we have opposing needs. Michael needs a good amount of space or alone time to feel his best and I need closeness, touch and time together. Initially this was a bit of an “oh shit” moment because our needs directly conflict with one another and giving in to the other was actually terrifying. Michael was so nervous in conflict leaning into me and it was so painful for me to give him space. However, this turned into an essential piece of understanding that allows us to have such a strong relationship.
We have learned to avoid tensions and conflicts by intentionally making time for Michael to get space and for us to spend time together. Once we were aware of these needs we could talk about them and arrange it into our schedule.
But, what happens in the middle of a fight?
Let me tell you another story
Early on in our relationship after we initially realized our different space vs. closeness needs, Michael and I were in his truck in the middle of a particularly challenging argument. I remember both of us sitting in silence unsure of how to move through it and because we were in the middle of a long drive there was no way for me to give him space. In an attempt to give me closeness and resolve our fight, Michael leaned over and with a stiff, awkward, open hand patted the top of my leg. The same way you would pat a dog for a job well done.
This was absolutely not the kind of touch that I wanted but I knew how scary it was for him to even attempt this. I had two options, either reject his touch because it wasn’t perfect and risk him never trying again or put his hand in mine and let him know it was safe to keep trying. I chose option #2.
To this day we still laugh about how awkward that first attempt was.
When we are in conflict, depending on who is in the “most” pain the other will lean into that person’s need for space or closeness. This is really hard – like crawling out of the depths of hell kind of hard – but I know that when I am sitting in another room amidst an argument, giving Michael space, a piece of him is feeling love for/from me because I am giving him what he needs at the expense of my own comfort. For us, that is love and it is hard to stay mad when you are feeling love.
Because of the way that we move through these challenging moments I have built a tremendous amount of trust in Michael and our relationship. I am confident that we can get through hard things not because of how much we love each other but because of how we fight with each other. The way that we get to the other side of arguments stronger and more in love gives me security in our relationship.
No one is immune to the challenges of life. Hard things will happen and how we approach them is going to differ on an individual basis. How can I trust that Michael will still love me when I mess up? What will happen to our relationship when tragedy strikes?
We decided that instead of trying to avoid or minimize conflict altogether we wanted to know – how could we get really good at fighting?
For us, that looks like:
Having a zero tolerance for name calling or cursing
Asshole. Bitch. Fuck you. Go fuck yourself.
We have a zero tolerance for anything of the sort because we tried it and it was incredibly painful. These are jabs meant to inflict pain on the other and they leave a scar which is very difficult to repair. It is a lot like getting bit by a dog – maybe the dog didn’t mean to, or it was an accident, but regardless you will need to build a lot of trust with that animal to feel 100% comfortable with them again. Name calling and cursing for us has been the fastest path to self protection and from there it is really hard for us to resolve conflict.
Look to where we are accountable first
Before we took on the challenge of getting really good at fighting I had tunnel vision and was completely blind to where I was contributing to a conflict. It was pretty much never my fault and where I was to blame was triggered by something they did – so really, it was their fault. There was a lot of “I am only acting this way because you did that first!”
Then I learned that I go nowhere with that attitude. Instead, the first place I look is my side of the street and I have realized that no one can make me feel or do anything – I am in control of my own actions and emotions so therefore I need to take responsibility for them. If I am short and snippy, inconsiderate, forget to do something I promised or whatever mistake it is I make – I start there.
What is really cool about this is that when I am really genuine, own my piece and have no expectations that Michael in turn takes accountability for his side of the argument, he will naturally do it anyways. This is our version of waving the white flag – “remember me? The real me, not the jerk that sometimes inhabits my body”
Make the implicit explicit
Maybe it is just me but I used to think that my thoughts were so loud and clear that when the other person couldn’t read them it was a complete failure on their part.
Me: “You should know that I wanted you to clean the dishes after dinner.”
Michael: “But you didn’t ask me to?”
Me: “I didn’t?”
This is a little extreme but unfortunately not that far off.
It was a rude awakening when I realized that Michael didn’t think the same way as me and if I wanted him to understand my wants, needs, desires and inner world I would have to share it with him. For me this is especially challenging when I am not even sure what it is I am feeling.
Clear is kind. The more clearly I could express myself the better off I ended up. It didn’t mean I always got what I wanted but I avoided missed expectations. Another lesson from Annie Lalla is to turn our implicit expectations into explicit agreements. If I wanted Michael to clean the dishes – I needed to ask him to do so. If I had an expectation that I didn’t communicate I could explain that too, understanding that getting angry with him because of it was unfair.
My best self: “Hey – how do you feel about every time I make dinner you are on clean up duty?”
Also my best self: “I am feeling angry that you didn’t clean up the dishes after dinner. You’re not wrong because I didn’t ask you which is my responsibility. In the future can you do the dishes if I cook?”
This is the same for the times I am just not sure what I am feeling. If something is rumbling inside whether I express it or not – he can feel it. That knowing we all have when “something is up” with our partner. If I keep it inside I give him the chance to make up a story around it instead of providing all the context.
My best self: “Babe – I am feeling really overwhelmed and tense but I am really not exactly sure what it is.”
I want to set us up for success. Set us up for an opportunity to talk about what is going on in a space that is open, safe and judgement free.
I swear this is the trick that can almost always save the day. If one of us can do something that makes the other laugh just as a fight is building momentum, everything is diffused and we immediately lighten the mood.
We might tease the other person, imitate them in a playful way to show how ridiculous we are or get physical and wrestle. If we laugh it’s a good sign that we are going to move through our conflict quickly.
It is really hard to stay mad when you are laughing. Even better, is how easy it is to forget what we were even fighting about or why it mattered.
So, we fight.
We don’t love it, we would prefer it if it happened less often and also understand that when it happens we have an opportunity to get closer depending on how we approach it.
This attitude has been especially helpful since Shai was born because this period of time has been filled with more tension than at any other point in our relationship. Whether it is because we have less time to spend alone with each other, we are navigating new territory like negotiating responsibilities or sleep deprivation is just getting the best of me – it is easier than ever to tip us (especially me) over the edge.
And so we live to fight another day.