Remember Kim and Charlie whom I wrote about in last time? They are a couple married over 25 years who came to see me due to their ongoing quarrelling, followed by days of emotional distance. They had arguments about different matters and the pattern was almost always the same. Kim would raise concerns such as why he works so late, spends so much time watching sports on TV, or does not make more effort to talk with her more. Charlie does not understand what the big deal is. He loves her and tells her this, but when Kim is stirred up about something, he anticipates a quarrel and wants to be just about anywhere else. He gets quiet, tries to change the subject or leaves the room. He goes to do something he excels such as his work or watching sports on TV to escape from the relationship turmoil.*
Knowing your own relationship style and that of your partner’s can help you get out of negative patterns and into positive ones where you can soothe upset feelings and bring pleasure to both of you. You may remember that Charlie’s relationship style is what Stan Tatkin called an ‘Island’ characterized by a tendency to withdraw when in distress. Kim’s relationship style is a ‘Wave’ characterized by a tendency to talk and try to connect when in distress. See How to Understand Your Partner’s Relationship Style for a more full explanation of relationship styles.
With the knowledge of each other’s relationship style, how each responds when emotionally upset, and how each perceives the other’s actions, we will get out of the negative spirals and resolve our differences much more quickly. When we really know how each other ticks, we will know how to influence, shift, motivate, soothe and inspire each other.
What Makes Your Partner Feel Good?
With unhappy couples, often an ‘Island’ reacts to their partner’s criticisms by saying, “you are trying to change my personality. Accept me as I am.” The ‘Wave’ does not really want to change their partner’s personality. They usually really care about them and accept them for who they are, but are frustrated with their effort to communicate and connect. They are struggling to find ways to influence, motivate or have some positive effect on them.
Partners who are experts on each other know how to please and soothe each other. To become an expert on your partner, first you need to know what their vulnerabilities are. Next, you need to know what the antidote for each vulnerability is. A vulnerability is what bothers you; a hot button. An antidote is what your partner can do to calm you. Stan Tatkin in his book Wired for Love, identifies typical vulnerabilities for ‘Islands’ and ‘Waves’.
Vulnerabilities (hot button) Antidote (what partner can do)
Feeling intruded upon Approach quietly rather than calling by name. Leave.
Feeling trapped or out of control ‘I need a few minutes of your time and then you can get back to what you were doing.’ ‘I can see you have had enough, we can stop and pick this up later.’
Fear of too much intimacy Learn what level of intimacy they are comfortable with and ease into closeness.
Fear being blamed ‘Look it’s not all your fault and even if it was, that is not what matters to me.’
Fear of being abandoned by ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I love you so much that I’ll be with you forever.”
Being separated from you Keep in touch regularly through text messages: ‘Thinking about you,’ ‘I had a bad meeting,’ ‘I love you.’
Discomfort being alone for too long ‘I will call you as soon as I land.’ ‘Looking forward to our dinner together.’
Feeling they are a burden ‘You are no more a burden to me than I am to you.’
When you know how to soothe or please your partner when they are upset, you will then know how to motivate or influence them when they are not. These two competencies will strengthen the relationship with partner and you will work together on the challenges you face.
Repair damage quickly
When your partner is bothered or upset about something, pay attention and ask about it, even if they don’t want to talk right away. Make sure they know you care and want to relieve their distress.
Prevent problems before they arise.
Knowing how to repair damage is helpful, but prevention is even better. By doing the little things that please your partner, the two of you will talk more regularly and then deal with minor issues before they become big problems.
Eventually, Charlie became an expert at knowing how to please and soothe Kim and began calling not only if he was going to be working late, but he also found that texting her during the day with quick messages made a big difference to her mood. Together, they created a much more pleasant evening when Charlie got home. After a chance to share their days with each other and have meaningful conversation over dinner, Kim was comfortable when Charlie wanted to watch sports on TV while she read a book or talked to friends on the phone in another room.