We all need “a good listening to” sometimes—especially when we feel upset!
When my partner is angry with me, whether I think her feelings are justified or not, responding with these powerful “Three R’s” helps build a stronger bridge of trust and love between us.
I want to know more about how she’s feeling. Have I been thoughtless or uncaring? Does she have some raw/sore spots I didn’t know about? I don’t want her to hold back; whatever is going to come up, I’ll do my best to handle it. The main thing for me is that she feels heard and validated and knows I’m not going to jump ship just because the waters have gotten choppy.
I show her that I know there will be a reason for how she’s feeling, and I’m committed to being there for her as we find out together what it is. She doesn’t have to justify those feelings. Whatever they are, if they feel important to her, that’s important to me. I’m not going to be offering opinions or advice, no “solutions”—only my attention for as long as she needs it.
I show my interest in what’s going on for her and that it in no way detracts from my love and respect. She can trust me to be there for her no matter what, and her well-being is as important to me as my own. I ask her to tell me if there’s anything I can do differently to support her better so I can tell her if that feels right or possible for me—and if not, I say what I can offer.
After those three crucial responses, if things have calmed down and connection between us been re-established, I have four more “R’s” to take things forward:
Reflection, Remorse, Repair, Reconciliation
Let’s talk more about her feelings. Is it something I did/said, or something from her past, which my behaviour has triggered—or a mixture of both? I also need to know she’s interested in how I’m feeling about it. When I understand better the reasons for what happened for her, I’ll happily change if she needs that, unless it goes against my values and beliefs. If so, we may need to compromise. Is she willing to do the same? If it’s a deal-breaker, I’d accept it but hope that my offer to do whatever I can to support her will mean she’ll want to do the same for me. It’s about compassionate boundaries on both sides
The result will be better mutual understanding, along with increased affection, trust, and respect—the three key elements to what I call love. Instead of breaking up after a conflict, we can make up in a way that leaves our connection stronger and deeper than before.
Then there are some other “R’s” that sabotage trust and intimacy:
If her anger or criticism triggers some past hurt or trauma in me, my instinct will be to “take it personally” and get defensive. If I’m not emotionally grounded enough, I’ll put my need to protect or justify myself ahead of showing caring/compassion. The best antidote to this that I know of is to share my fears with her. This way I can disentangle myself from my reactions and come back to clearly hearing what’s she’s saying.
A deep-seated fear of being “wrong,” probably rooted in some painful childhood experiences, will lead me to choose the “fight” type of defensiveness. An instinctive feeling is that it’s all unfair—that I’m a victim, and it’s not my fault. No matter how absurd it can seem to someone else, I’d attack and accuse the very person I’ve upset as a way to avoid feeling “bad.” The result is a stand-off, which can lead to the end of the relationship because of the huge loss of trust involved.
“Flight” is another type of defence—refusing to listen, and/or walking away. Leaving can be helpful if I need time to absorb what I’ve heard so I can be open to what’s being said, even if it’s painful to hear. The important thing is to give a time limit and stick to my promise to came back. Otherwise, I’ll give her the message that I’m not emotionally strong enough to care for/about her and/or she’s not that important to me.
It’s empowering to realise that I can decide how to respond to what my partner does or says. I aspire to be a grown-up by choosing the ways which create acceptance and understanding rather than disconnection and distance—but it takes practice, and I often fall short of this ideal.
The main thing to do then is own up, know that I did my best…and hope we can laugh about it together!