Todd and Emily fought about almost everything. They argued about their work schedules and household chores. They fought about visits with their families. They clashed over paying bills, taking the dog for a walk and watching programs on television.
Todd and Emily each felt unappreciated and unrecognized in their relationship. Whenever an opportunity arose to complain about the other they grabbed it – making accusations, dismissing their partner’s efforts as inadequate, and demanding to have their way. Conflict was the name of the game.
For a brief moment both Todd and Emily felt powerful and assertive as they scolded one another. But it was the briefest of moments.
When the shouting was over Todd and Emily felt bad. When the cold shoulder treatment took over they felt alone, and cut off from each other. All their energy spent trying to get the upper hand was used up and now they were both depleted, flattened and uncertain as to how, if ever, they were going to get the relationship back on track.
Neither of them wanted to be the first to speak.
Neither of them wanted to be the first to make up.
Emily was longing for Todd to see that she was upset and apologize to her.
Todd ached for Emily to initiate contact so he could finally express his feelings without the threat of dismissal or rejection.
The uncertainty in their relationship caused tension, anxiety and stress.
The longer the tension lasted the more Todd and Emily felt wound up and anxious like a pressure cooker about to burst with a loud hiss of boiling hot scalding steam.
Both just wanted to rush to the other, hug, kiss and pretend the fight never happened. But they had to save face and hold out to test the other person’s love. They were at an impasse each waiting for the other to give in.
Waiting and hoping for capitulation was stressful. Sometimes Todd and Emily coped with the stress by becoming defensive. They didn’t want to feel or act weak, so each of them put up walls and pretended not to care, not to need the other, not to want to be back in the warmth of intimacy.
When Todd and Emily put their defensive walls up and pretended to be fine - all alone and disconnected, they held onto their bad feelings as suits of armor. After all if they allowed themselves to feel soft feelings for their partner that would make them weak and needy. So those bad feelings of anger, resentment and stubbornness persisted. Those bad feelings triggered a slew of stress hormones into their blood stream making them even more anxious and stressed.
At other times Todd or Emily would shut down after a fight. They would make themselves invisible and lick their emotional wounds. Their shut down modes made them feel isolated but safe from any more impending attacks from one another – you know the ones where everything from the past gets dredged up and heaped onto the current fight.
When Todd and or Emily went into shut down frozen numb mode they also shut out the possibility of connection. Both of them became unavailable to the other.
Whether they put their walls up and held onto bad feelings or went into shut down mode Todd and Emily made sure they couldn’t heal the wounds and rebound. They remained stressed and put a huge burden on their immune system.
Research evidence indicates that couples know about each other's stress
An article in the 2010 edition of Stress and Health found that partners are acutely aware of each other’s stress and can predict the source of the stress with great accuracy. So Emily knows precisely what upsets Todd, and Todd knows exactly what makes Emily stress out. Because of that intimate knowledge of each other, Todd and Emily are in the best position to help each other through the mess and find that comfortable secure loving feeling with one another again.
So what does the research tell us about reducing the stress of the fights that cause emotional disconnects and recovering intimacy?
The answer is to share your feelings of sadness, share your fear of losing regard and love, and be open about your desire to get back on track. Emily and Todd practiced sharing their mix of feelings when they were both stressed out after a fight. Emily told Todd how she feared him finding her unattractive and leaving her when they argued. Todd told Emily about his sense of sadness that the one person he could rely on to understand him was no longer available after a fight.
Each disclosure reduced their stress levels.
Each disclosure opened them up to feel wanted and cared for.
Each disclosure helped them realize that they both feared losing each other more than anything else and that helped them recapture their lost intimacy – in a stronger and longer lasting manner.
So when you are feeling stressed and disconnected from your loved one after a fight, instead of waiting for your partner to go first, take a step toward regaining intimacy by sharing your feelings.
Use your own sense of discomfort to imagine what it must be like for your partner. When you are aware of your partner’s stress, take a step toward intimacy by sharing your sense of distress. It will invite your partner to do the same and voila, you have re-established the ground for closeness.
The benefits of sharing your distress is enormous and long lasting:
• You feel contentment that you are accepted despite your harsh tone or mean words when fighting.
• You will have more room inside you to be fully present in the moment rather than feeling the sore spots of the past.
• Your muscles will let go of their tension so you are receptive to affection.
• You experience your partner sensually in that soft moment instead of through tightness of fear from the past.
• Sensual tones in the body lead to a better sex life
• Good sex creates better bonds when oxytocin is released in the blood
• Stronger bonds make you feel safe and secure
• Safety and security give you energy and enthusiasm to live life to the full
So just share your feelings, good, scary, bad and all. It isn’t weak. It leads to a restoration of the loving bond after a fight and reconnects you physically, emotionally and socially.