I fight with my partner.
I wish I were more light-hearted, that our fights were breezy and transformative and that by the end we both really “got” where the other was coming from.
I wish I knew more Non-Violent Communication (NVC) techniques.
Yet, at times all I can come up with, if I’m lucky enough to find words, is
“I feel hostile and angry when you come into the room because you make me feel like I’m hitting my head against a brick wall. What I need from you is that you be better.”
And yet sometimes…sometimes…when the moon lines up at a certain angle and some type of deity smiles on me ever so coyly—though briefly—sometimes I can remember to play.
Not play in the “play monopoly” sense, but play in the sense that I am able to stay flexible, moving and engaged, even in the challenging places.
“Approfondement is a French word that means ‘playing easily in the deep’”
~ Said Tom Robbins.
This is an important skill to hone, as play is the only state that keeps us engaged with others when we are in high stress or high stake environments, be they social, political, environmental or cultural. It keeps our nervous systems from simply fighting and fleeing.
Peace is not the opposite of war—play is, dynamic and infinite play (a paraphrase of something Gwen Gordon said).
Without play, this is a breakdown of my body’s response to stress and how it unfolds in a fight with the one I love—according to the Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges.
I encounter something distressing or stressful (for example, we did not leave at the agreed upon time).
- I use my Social Engagement System
I make genuinely encouraging & concerned facial gestures, watch for reassurance, talk & listen, breathe, and notice my partner’s tone of voice. I hear, I mean really hear, him. I may genuinely use “I feel” statements and NVC techniques in a non-threatening or manipulative way.
More “something distressing” (for example, he doesn’t see the situation quite the same way that I do).
- I engage my Fight or Flight response while deactivating my Social Engagement System.
He does the same. This is that point in an argument where we don’t really hear one another anymore. We’ve each retreated to our own camp and are yelling or sullenly glaring, over the fence. We may be using classic “I feel” statements but the tone has shifted. It feels charged, life or death, because at one point in our lives it may have been. (For example, I may have learned young that fighting means that someone leaves, and as a completely dependent child that’s a life or death situation.) We stop hearing one another. I start acting, well, like a child.
More stressing (for example, he doesn’t seem to feel sorry enough or grasp the gravity of the situation).
- I Freeze.
This is the last line of defense to a stressful situation. I fall asleep, tune out or become still (emotionally or otherwise). He may do the same. It’s too much.
So what does play have to do with this?
The amazing thing about play is that it is the only state that allows us to stay “socially engaged” and connected while simultaneously being in “fight or flight”.
This means we don’t end up frozen and we stay on the same team as the other person. Little kids do this when they are playing. They can be aggressively wrestling and still be communicating to one another that “it’s alright, we’re in this together”.
Going back to the argument, if we can see the situation from a distance, shake out our bodies or meet the eyes of the other person, give one another a long hug or take a break and connect to one another again, we can bring back the Social Engagement System into a high stakes situation. When we do this we make new meaning around what it means to fight. We are able to stay more open and soft while actively engaging in conflict. Something slightly humerus may even escape in the middle of the argument. This type of “playful engagement” allows room for our positions to shift and reconfigure.
I am not proposing that we nudge nudge wink wink each other in the middle of a sincere and serious argument. If my partner gives me a smile or chuckle mid argument I will most likely glare back.
I am suggesting that:
1. In order to play I must know I am in a relationship in which it is safe to fight.
Play requires safety and the feeling that we are being held or belonged and so often we may need to take time to establish or reestablish this before the fights and the relationship can start to play, flow and regain flexibility.
2. Play requires that I stretch my ability to see what is occurring for my partner even in the midst of painful or difficult emotions.
Am I able to see my partner in difficult places without taking it personally or jumping in to fix it.
3. Play requires that we stretch our own ability to be seen in difficult or painful emotions; which means being vulnerable
See again point number 1 about safety.
Play asks that we sink into the depths with those we love and play there, seeing and being seen.
This is play at work in a conversation. It doesn’t discredit or lesson the feelings of either person (“Comeoooon, just lighten up” style) but it does make space for something new and keep people on the same team.
Here is a link to an article on the Social Engagement System and the fear of flying if you’re curious.
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Assistant editor: Gabriela Magana/Ed: Sara Crolick