You're boiling inside about something your partner just said or did...maybe it's the VERY thing you've talked about 457 times before and it's STILL happening.
The thing to do next to actually come to a resolution is probably THE most counterintuitive...
So, let's start with that witch that lives inside you
You know...the one who says things like, "YOU SUCK" or "YOU'RE A TERRIBLE MOTHER" or "YOU'RE JUST A SCREW UP" or "YOU'RE NOT DOING ENOUGH"
I think we all live with some version of that voice. Our brains are wired for it. I don't really care what you call it: ego, fear, the devil...
One of the very first things I do when I work with couples is I try to tease out the specific-to-you destructive core beliefs at play within each person that are being triggered within the relationship.
We all have destructive core beliefs shaping our lens through which we see ourselves, each other, and the world. When left unexamined, they can slowly deteriorate relationships and put an upper limit on success and happiness.
Last weekend I made an extensive list of these beliefs on a whiteboard for a classroom full of couples and asked them to pick the ones that most resonated with them.
And what happened is what usually happens, people have a REALLY hard time identifying these beliefs...especially as they pertain to their relationship.
It's like when I've had my sunglasses on my head for hours and then am booming, "WHERE ARE MY SUNGLASSES?! HAS ANYONE SEEN MY SUNGLASSES?!" as I'm trying to get out the door.
They've been there so long I can't feel them anymore.
I approached a couple who looked confused. He said, "I can't really figure out what mine is." I had asked the group to think of some arguments, irritations, blow-ups, or times they shut down with their partner, and then see if they could find a theme of one of the underlying beliefs on the board.
He had plenty of examples. "Like when she asks me to change the baby's diaper and then has an opinion on how much diaper cream I've used, or when I'm making dinner and she takes over a task because she doesn't like the way I'm doing it...."
I said, "So, it feels like you can't do it right? Or like she feels like you're not competent or capable?"
These thoughts fit clearly under the belief in inferiority (I'm less than you) and in fact were listed on the board.
And this is REALLY common. I wonder if the toughness in seeing these beliefs in ourselves is that in those moments of defensiveness or shut-down we're so focused on the OTHER person's part that it makes a blind-spot for seeing our own.
THE HUGE TRUTH IS...if there wasn't a part of you that believed that insert your destructive core belief here it wouldn't bother you when it seemed like someone else thought it too.
I also wonder if in many of us one defense mechanism we've created in living with such beliefs is portraying the opposite in an effort to prove to ourselves and the world that we're O.K.
For instance, it's easy to begin acting from a superior intent when you perceive that someone is treating you like you're inferior.
Imagine the outcome if he snaps back, "YOU're always micromanaging ME!"
"It sounds like you think I'm not capable?"
One elicits defensiveness in the listener and the other invites a conversation about the real underlying issue.
What I see in my office is just a few themes of core beliefs:
In men I mostly see some variation of: I can't DO it right or I can't DO enough - focused on DOING.
In women I mostly see some variation of: I am not enough - focused on BEING.
There's also the insidious, "I'm defective", "I'm a failure", and "I'm bad."
I have one client who is, career-wise - REALLY successful, but also moves through his personal life with a large dose of belief in his defectiveness. Because of a diagnosis of depression and anxiety it's like he can't trust his own feelings or his brain at large. This keeps him from addressing emotional issues in the moment which has his partner feeling like she's playing a game without the rules as she gets blindsided with his true feelings long after the fact.
This triggers her belief that she's not enough and sets off a big reaction to which he attributes to him not feeling or thinking about this "right" and ends up being one more piece of evidence for the stack labeled, "I'm defective".
In the workshop I hosted this weekend a man said, "I think mine is that 'I'm bad', but I'm not really sure." He told me this comes up for him when he travels a lot for work leaving his wife home to parent their 3 young children.
"I know she wants me to call, but sometimes I'm in meetings and in different time zones and it just makes it not possible."
His wife was in the restroom. I asked him if her core belief was, "I'm not important". His eyes got big and he tapped on her worksheet, "YES."
I love when people think I'm a witch.
I often see couples' destructive core beliefs fitting together like puzzle pieces - holding them in a go-nowhere pattern of interaction like Chinese handcuffs. The more they do what's intuitive from the perspective their destructive core belief creates, the more they're locked into an argument that feels like it never gets resolved and probably happens on repeat.
I teach couples to lean in to these moments so that they can be set free (same deal with Chinese handcuffs). To lean into these tough conversations we have to learn how to wrap our mouths around our own destructive core beliefs and those of our partner.
THE MOST RIDICULOUS EXAMPLE: Months after we had our first child we were attempting to go on date nights. It was a real joke. Despite being away from the baby, it seemed we couldn't remember how to talk about anything but the baby: when the baby last pooped, was it a big poop?, or a small poop?, how long the baby had slept, and when the baby will sleep again....
You get the idea.
In a really conscious effort to get us talking about something else I said, "So, what places to visit are on your bucket list?"
"I don't know," he said abruptly with a HINT of a "that's a stupid question" tone.
I read his response as confusion: I had changed the subject REALLY QUICKLY. So, I gave him some examples, "You know, like I REALLY want to go to Greece, and Italy, and Hawaii, and Spain. THOSE are the places I'm really drawn to. So, how about you?"
I don't know.
Like where have you always dreamed of going?
I DON'T know.
I . DON'T . KNOW.
It was clear that he really wasn't saying "I don't know," at this point and I dropped the subject. I thought maybe he was just in a bad mood.
Same thing happened on the next date night. It was clear he was irritated with the topic.
Because I know some big destructive core beliefs for him are "I don't do it right" and "I don't do enough" I thought, "HOW could he be perceiving this conversation through THAT lens?"
Wait...Do you think I'm saying that it's YOUR job to get me to these places?
YES! What else would you be saying?
He also heard that he wasn't doing enough because he hadn't gotten me to any of these places yet.
THAT WAS SO NOT MY INTENT. But now, because his perception of my intent was clear, I had a chance to clear it up. "ERIC, I work! If I want to get these places it's my job to get me there...not yours. My happiness is MY job."
When we're not clear of our destructive core beliefs and how to talk about them in the moment, it can be SO easy to get off track.
We had the bucket-list-places-to-visit conversation recently and it went really differently. I asked him if he remembered the last time we talked about it, and he didn't (our oldest is 9).
And as I'm writing this I'm realizing that just the context of having a new baby could have really magnified his destructive core beliefs: They are often mirrored back to you by the people and things you care about the most. A baby's cry sure can sound a lot like, "YOU'RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT!" and "YOU'RE NOT DOING ENOUGH!"
I was going to take more credit for us being able to get through that conversation this time without him taking my dreams personally, but maybe the fact that we don't have a newborn plays as big a part as all of the relationship work we've done??
So, what's the first step in wanting to scratch your partner's eyes out less? Examining and addressing the witch that lives inside of you...and the one in your partner.
If it bother's you, it lives in you.
You deserve happy relationships,
PS - For a limited time my Training for Busy Couples is FREE! Marriage is hard...for everyone. Watch this training to find out what divorcing couples say they wish they would have known 5-10 years ago. Over 2000 people have watched. CLICK HERE TO JOIN.
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