“What if you didn’t kill him this time, Molly? Maybe if you weren’t so punishing?” my then-relationship coach said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What if I don’t know how to do that?”
“Okay. Well, how about you just try to make it feel good to come back to you.” She finally left me with.
It was a classic situation. My boyfriend and I were in a fight and we were both mad at each other. I, however, was the particularly punishing one and loved to hold a grudge for as long as I could stand it. I loved to make sure he felt like an idiot any time he messed up, and I loved to make him jump through hoops to earn my love back when we reconnected. Being in a relationship with me at this time was a real joy. We lived and worked together on similar projects and were also immersed in a community, so being at odds impacted more than just the two of us.
In this particular instance, he had withdrawn and we could no longer “feel” each other. The attention had dropped from the relationship, as we were both taking space. I was ready to reconcile sooner than he was, and I was confiding in my coach because I didn’t know what to do, how to get him back and engaged again. To which she said the words that I think of often: Make it feel good to come back to you.
“Patience. Whenever he is ready, welcome him back kindly, show appreciation that he came back to the connection, and try to have an honest conversation.”
The reason it took so long for him to come back after a fight was because I was so punishing and he feared my intense reactions. Over time, my emotional instability and all the ways I overtly and covertly pushed him away had made him less interested in being vulnerable or extending himself; essentially, anything that put him at risk of being under fire, he avoided.
The truth is, I was in a lot of pain from newly getting sober. I learned later on that I had a lot of undealt with trauma and PTSD that prevented anyone from getting too close. I was unfortunately very unconscious of it at the time. It wasn’t until the relationship finally ended that I started to unpack it.
Ultimately, he wasn’t going to be able to win with me no matter how hard he tried, and the relationship deteriorated.
I thankfully have gotten much better in this area of my relationships after learning that punishing was one of my main character defects. I approach men and the people in my life with a lot more patience and understanding, mostly as a result of learning to treat myself that way too.
Here are some things to keep in mind when tensions get high in your intimate relationships.
1. Remember that everyone is trying their best
At one point during a fight, likely after I said something along the lines of “You’re not showing up the way I need you to,” my boyfriend pleaded with me. He said, “Molly, I need you to know that I’m literally trying my best here.”
It broke my heart hearing this. Why had I not been able to see this? I had been judging him and holding him to the expectations I would hold myself to. How I would handle situations and go through life. It never occurred to me that maybe he didn’t have the same set of skills, the same set of experiences, the same tools I had been given or taught. He was his own sometimes-hurting person and I was failing to see him and acknowledge how much he was trying and how much he was showing up.
I’m eternally grateful he was willing to make himself vulnerable enough to say and express that rather than slowly withdrawing and growing more resentful towards me or simply throwing righteous blame back at me. He actually let me feel him and understand his world more.
In her book The Queen’s Code, Alison Armstrong drives home this important point. We can mistake our partners and have expectations they will act and behave as a “Perfect Person” would. We hold ourselves to these ‘perfect’ standards, but in the process, we cannot see each other’s true brilliance and wholly unique capacities and capabilities.
The next time you find yourself wanting to blame or punish your partner, consider that they’re likely doing the best they can and may care more deeply than you’ve let yourself potentially acknowledge. Try to connect with their world.
2. Acceptance is the answer
I have a friend from college who I love dearly but who I don’t talk to as frequently as I’d like. She’s an incredibly busy person, and when she’s with people, she’s completely present. You could go months without hearing from her, but when you do talk, it’s a deep and meaningful conversation and you know her priority is connecting with you. She and I have so many intimate memories I’ll never forget and we’ve seen each other through our darkest days.
She once canceled and bailed on me after I had planned an extensive Fourth of July trip with her and my other friends and it really hurt my feelings. I had been looking forward to spending quality time together and she totally flaked out. I was upset and let her know how disappointed I was. After that, I didn’t hear from her for months. We didn’t speak or talk and became totally disconnected.
After getting sober, I wrote out pages and pages of self-reflective inventory dissecting our relationship and realized I had put unrealistic expectations onto her and wanted her to show up in more ways than she was able. I made amends to her and slowly our relationship healed.
This time, however, I learned to accept our connection for what it was and however it looked. I stopped doubting she loved and cared about me when she didn’t express or show it in the way I would have normally expected her to. She didn’t need to go through hoops to prove she was best friend of the year. I could simply cherish the memories we had and know in my heart I was important to her and she was important to me.
Whenever she reached out or was able to connect, I made it feel good to come back to me. I didn’t punish her for her silence or complain it had been so long. I simply met her where she was at, which was really busy pursuing a new career, going back to school, and settling in a new city. She was living her life fully. Each time, she said, “Thanks for understanding, Moll, I love you.”
Accepting her was the answer.
3. Agree to stay connected
So often people avoid telling us the truth or avoid expressing themselves fully out of fear they will be abandoned or left if the receiving party doesn’t like or agree with what gets said. Avoidance will drain relationships of electricity and truth when there’s a backlog of things not being said.
If you trend toward avoidance or a general fear of conflict, it may feel compelling to do what’s called a hit and run. A hit and run in your relationships or in your conversations is where you say the thing quickly and then take off. Offloading and then disengaging out of fear that sticking around will require you to experience uncomfortable intimacy or hear truth you’d rather avoid. Make it a practice to stay connected, open, and have warmth and approval for the other’s experience, and see the conversation all the way through. Stay connected.
What happened with my friend was that I simply blamed her, expressed my anger, and wasn’t willing to make space or slow down to hear her side. I didn’t welcome an actual conversation and didn’t consider that things had been going on in her life that made it hard for her to show up.
I wasn’t a very pleasant person to navigate conflict with.
I approach disagreements much differently now and go in with the intention that more connection and intimacy gets generated vs. a further divide when both people agree to hear each other fully.
Even when things feel dicey and uncomfortable, agree to stay connected, stick around, and open yourself up to other perspectives than just your own.
When we take responsibility for how we show up in our relationships, especially during charged or difficult conflict, we are able to navigate intimacy and deeper connection. Getting to see someone more deeply and getting to reveal ourselves more deeply as well is the experience we’re all craving in connection.
Make it feel good to come back to you. Drop your armor and be willing to witness someone else or yourself more vulnerably. Accept the ones you love for their humanity, their flaws, their gifts, and their learnings.
Give yourself that same level of acceptance and grace and remember we’re all just trying our best. Relationships, especially our most intimate ones, don’t come with rule books or ‘how-tos’. With patience and understanding, even the most difficult challenges stand a chance.