~ Guest Writer, Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D ~
Growing up, I thought there were two states of being in a relationship. War or Peace.
My parents, dear, flawed role models that they were, appeared to have that kind of relationship. From a kid’s point of view, they alternatively had operatic fights (War) or looked at each other in a manner that made the phrase “get a room” come to mind (Peace). Their love for each other was without question, a reassuring thing for a kid to know. But the drama could be unsettling.
Even in my little kid heart, as sexy as my parent’s relationship seemed, I knew that when I grew up I didn’t want a relationship like that. The wars were exhausting and the peace didn’t feel like real peace. More like a lull before the next storm, there was no serenity in it.
As an adult I learned that what I longed for was emotional safety. Emotional safety where you can be yourself in a relationship without fear of something bad happening simply because you were you.
The kind of safe peace a puppy feels when they expose their belly.
Every summer my husband and I get together with three other couples to spend a long weekend in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. We have all been happily coupled up with our various mates for over 20 years. Our dinners are bountiful, the wine pours generously. Conversation swings from politics to history, art, philosophy, our lives.
A few years ago, the subject of conflict came up. We all shared our different ways of confronting and resolving problems within our relationships. OK, basically we were talking about how we had fights. The frequency of arguments. What we did to keep fights from producing lasting damage. That kind of thing.
When it came to Amy and Alex they both smiled and said they never fought. NO ONE believed them. Everyone fights. And if you don’t fight something is wrong with you. You look like a well-balanced loving couple. Is there some dark tension we aren’t seeing? Is this a façade? What the hell? You kind of need to know Amy and Alex to believe them when they said that they truly met differences of opinion with a don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff shrug so that conflicts never got so important that they needed to bring out the large artillery. They were truly at peace. All the time.
They are the couple equivalent of a unicorn.
I can’t even imagine. For one, I’m too neurotic. John, too. I think one of the reasons I fell in love with John is that he had about the same degree of neuroticism that I did. We also had the same desire for real Peace. We didn’t want a fake detente, DMZ, kind of relationship where problems were never resolved, just swept under the rug or quietly, tensely tolerated.
Real peace. The kind where we could say whatever was on our mind, out loud, and not be afraid of getting killed for it. Peace is a place to strive for within yourself, to be sure, but it’s so much easier if there is a lasting, true peace in your relationship.
Being imperfect, our path to real peace may look like the trail of a drunk driver but at least we’re moving forward. If I say my controversial thing in a snarky way I’m apt to get a defensive reaction. And vise versa. But if we don’t say whatever is bugging us out loud we live with inner stress that gets expressed indirectly, like sniper fire. In other words, I can be a bitch. Not peaceful.
And, just in case you are not aware of this yet, peace is a LOT OF WORK! A lot of struggling to get it right, slipping down, resetting, repeating.
Peace is hard fought.
To have a real lasting peace we have to learn what it is, create it and maintain it. That’s not easy. Some tips:
- Have a willing partner.
- Have the guts to be vulnerable.
- Rumble with it. That means sticking with the sticky situation even while you’re trying to figure out what it’s about, why it’s there, what to do with it. That means challenging the tension when we feel it. It means tolerating another person’s discomfort.
- Have rules of engagement and honor them. No yelling. No weaponizing of words. Give yourselves a time out if you need it. Don’t bring past history, the in-laws or the kids into the fight. Avoid snowballing. Stick to one issue at a time.
- Create what you desire. I desired emotional safety. I had to learn to provide that for my family as well. It means staying in the room even when you’re hearing things that makes you want to plug your ears and go LALALA! That means working on being emotionally regulated. That means learning how to manage my flight/fight response.
- Crying is OK. Go with it.
- Don’t try to fix it. Try to understand, have empathy, compassion. Often the “fix” isn’t obvious or may not even exist, so don’t waste your time. The fix is more like a promise: I promise to be more thoughtful. I promise to listen better. I promise to try not to lose it when you/I get scared.
- Apologize. Accept the apology. Work on forgiveness.
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a wife, mom to two adults and one horse, psychologist and writer who lives in Western New York where it’s cool to wear a cape and tall boots every day.
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