I've been hearing the same story from different
couples who come to talk to me. Jan and Myrna, for
example, have done some work to iron out the kinks in
their five-year relationship. ''We only had one minor
fight over the weekend,'' Myrna reports in our support
session. She looks pleased. Her partner, Jan,
doesn't seem so happy. I ask her why that is.
''We didn't make love again,'' Jan says. She thinks
the reason was ''some stuff left over from the
fight.'' I want to know if that ''stuff'' was
addressed in any way? ''No,'' Myrna says, ''with the little
time we had, we wanted to do something fun.''
I hear many
versions of this story. Fights tend to leave a ''residue''
that is hard to get rid of. But Jan and Myrna, like many
other couples, don't want to ''process too
much'' because they say it only creates more bad
feelings. ''All this talking!'' they complain. ''We just
want to move on and forget about it.''
It turns out that
this is easier said than done.
When Myrna and
Jan do talk, they realize that in their fights accusations
are sometimes thrown around like darts -- and then they
get stuck and nobody pulls them out. When they look at
the grudge they held over the weekend, Jan admits that
she was refusing to make love and ''give'' to Myrna
even though Myrna had made a sexy overture. Myrna
didn't ''deserve'' it, after all.
We all know the
situation. We drop our argument but stay at some remove
from each other. A hurt or guilt from what we said to each
other is stuffed away so we can go on with life. And
we succeed. We manage to have a good weekend in spite
of our tiff. But we don't make love -- or our
lovemaking doesn't truly bring us closer.
From my own
experience I can say that I used to waste a lot of time
processing angry exchanges with my lovers. Why did it take
so long? Because I could not get to that heart space
where suddenly it was possible to admit regret over
something I had done or said. At the turbulent
beginnings of my relationship with my partner, Kim, some 20
years ago, we were stunned to realize what happened when we
truly resolved a clash of our differences. When we
managed for the first time to fully understand each
other's anger and forgive each other. The
crumbling of our defenses was almost audible, like a brick
wall coming down. The release was like a deep breath
that expands the lungs, relaxes the muscles, and lets
warmth flow through the body. We suddenly remembered
our appreciation for each other, our love.
What makes it so
hard, then, to come to a place of healing after a fight?
There is a German
fairy tale about a little girl who can't get through
the gate to a magical garden because she doesn't know the
word ''Please.'' There ought to be another tale about
fighting lovers who can't get the gate to open because
they can't say ''I am sorry.'' Or ''You have a
point.'' Or ''I was wrong.'' These words have a childlike
simplicity that is instantly convincing and yet elusive,
like magic. If I hear from my lover that I have a
point, that I am partly right, the wave of anger
subsides by one notch and allows me to reconsider... ''Well,
you have a point too.'' Hearing and spelling out that
we each have a point makes us feel understood and
appreciated for who we are -- even if we don't agree
I learned that
spelling out regret is just like using any muscle one has
rarely or never used: It takes some training. Repeating the
words, feeling them, and then hearing oneself say them
out loud has an amazing effect. The unfamiliar act of
sharing the blame comes with a wondrous relief of
being part of the warm hub of humanity who happens to
be...imperfect. Instead of spinning down and apart from each
other in another vicious cycle of resentment, we are
experiencing a ''virtuous cycle'' of healing.
I often remind
couples that it does not matter who has started the
trouble and who begins the process of what is usually called
''giving in.'' Giving in has a bad name among women
nowadays and should be reframed because in this
context, it is simply a gesture of giving. Giving has
the potential of inviting a generous gesture in return. For
couples who are particularly concerned about fairness and
equality, I suggest that they take turns: This time,
after a fight, I am the first to come around and use
the magical formula. Next time it's your turn.
Healing in this
context is all about communication -- not about endless
''processing.'' I love to tell couples I work with how often
I had to hear from Kim ''Why don't you just say you
are sorry?'' when I had hurt her feelings. My
reaction, ''Because I am NOT sorry!'' or ''Because
my father could never say it either!'' turned out not to be
very productive communication. The same was true when
I protested, ''Why should I be the first to give in?
You started it!'' But then we heard how we were
talking to each other in our fights: like pesky kids. We
realized that most of our triggers led back to
childhood patterns and reactions. And if childhood is
at the root of so much trouble, we thought, then we
had better enlist the child within to help fix the
We gave ourselves
and each other names for the traits in us that evoked
our unruly, naughty child selves. Instead of using "you"
language, which is always very adult and potentially
inflammatory (''You have once again hurt me!''), I
would address one of Kim's characters, a little
critter called Snout, and say, for example, ''Snout has
snapped. Snout was a mean, mean Snout again!'' The
small fact of not being addressed ''personally'' has a
big effect: It implies some degree of humor and
forgiveness in the very language used. One of my own child
characters has been defined as a boy, and when I am unable
to admit that I have been unfair, I manage more easily
to say, ''He's sorry. He did bad. He did it
again!'' Usually Kim's hurt is instantly soothed by
such a slightly comical admission.
We can find
encouragement in the fact that as a couple we are usually
triggered by the same differences between us, again and
again. For example, Kim has a need for unrestrained
abundance, whereas my temperament prefers a certain
frugality. This pattern shows up everywhere in our
life -- when we argue about how much food to prepare for
guests, how many plants we need for our garden, or how
many books we can keep on our shelves. One day we
joked that this difference would be eternalized on our
grave: Kim's tombstone (next to mine) would read,
''More!'' whereas mine would read, ''Enough already!''
When a pattern is recognized, it takes no time to find
a funny name or label for it in order to jump out of
it...and laugh about it.
Kim and I are mad at each other, one of us suddenly
suggests, "They are still friends, no?" often accompanied by
a nudge or taking hold of a hand. I may even say it in
a child's voice, and Kim usually answers,
''Nobody wants you!'' like another pesky child. This
never fails to crack me up, so I plead and argue, ''Yes,
they want him, they do!'' and move a little closer.
''Who would want him? He's a pest!'' she
growls. The playful tone breaks the spell, and soon enough
the whole drama has turned around.
fights does not have to take long if we make use of the
simple, childlike, magical ''tools'' that are at our
fingertips. In no time at all we are back to liking
each other. We see each other as pals, friends, and --
in another blink -- as lovers again.