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Agreeing to Stop - Part 2

The will and ability to stop, to pause, or to take a break, stands out for me as one of the best achievements made by the couples I work with in therapy. This is Part 2 of a two-part piece on a couple’s work to interrupt a destructive pattern and opt, instead, for a preferred story of their relationship.

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Part 1 of this two-part piece described how a married couple agreed to change a longstanding pattern by stopping a destructive, downward spiral of arguing and hostility before it took them down one more time. Instead, they developed the ability to pause or take a break and resume the discussion when they could be calm and compassionate with one another. Their ability to start taking these steps had begun to restore their hope in their relationship and allow the positive, loving, and caring qualities of their relationship to be more on display. In Part 1 I framed their agreement to stop as an act of standing up for their preferred story of their relationship. In Part 2 I want to return to this couple and describe in more detail the steps they took to get to the place where they were able to agree to stop, and stick with it. To give this fictitious-but-based-on-many-people-I’ve-worked-with couple a little more life and personality, I’m naming them Abe and Zoe.

The ability to say stop and have it mean something, resulted from considerable effort by both Abe and Zoe. Previous efforts had usually not helped, and often resulted in an escalation of their arguments and left them feeling demoralized. But when they showed up to a therapy session and told me of their recent successes at stopping before being pulled down, I was eager to document the factors or steps they took to make it happen. Here are some of the steps they identified:

1. They made changes based on the concerns raised in their previous arguments. A hallmark of Abe and Zoe’s downward-spiraling arguments was that neither one believed the other was listening. Consequently they found themselves repeating the same argument over and over, with emphasis, and defending against those arguments with well-honed rebuttals.

But as I talked with them about how they were able to interrupt the painful pattern it became clear that both Zoe and Abe had, in fact, heard some of the other’s key concerns. And not only did they hear, but they made changes that showed that they had listened. The changes were in areas like kitchen cleanliness, showing interest in each other’s day, the tones of voice they used with each other, their facial expressions while the other was on the phone, the amount of time spent on the computer or in front of the TV, and in their willingness to take on responsibilities for their kids’ activities and schedules. Zoe started noticing Abe making these changes, and Abe noticed Zoe’s changes and the changes sparked a sense of good will in one another.

2. They each reflected on their own processes and patterns and developed a greater level of awareness. At various points in our conversation, Abe and Zoe each reflected on something they had learned about themselves that helped them understand how their own actions had been fueling the downward spiral of their arguments.

For example, Zoe had a moment of clarity after a particularly difficult argument. She said, “I realized that I had been getting mad in response to frustration and difficulty all of my life, but getting mad had never really accomplished anything.” Zoe’s insight enabled her to consider doing something other than getting mad when frustration and difficulty hit.

Similarly, Abe reported that he was managing his annoyance better. After one argument where he strenuously objected to Zoe telling him that he was “annoyed all the time” (which, Abe argued, “couldn’t possibly be true … no one could be annoyed ALL the time”), and having heard Zoe use the word “annoyed” over and over again, he started paying more attention to all of his gestures that indicated annoyance. He didn’t like the impression his gestures were giving to Zoe or their kids, but even more importantly, he didn’t like that he was being one of those constantly annoyed people for whom he had little respect. “It was just no way to live,” he said, and he started looking for ways to shift a moment of annoyance into something more positive or “actionable” (that is, finding a way to take action to address the annoyance rather than just getting angry).

Zoe also acknowledged to herself, really for the first time, that stress was taking a big toll on her. So it became worth it to her to find ways to reduce tension in all areas of her life. And Abe realized that his insistence that they “resolve this right now!”, whenever they had a disagreement, grew much more from his anger and fear than from a real desire to work together with Zoe to resolve something. So he started to imagine other possibilities that could be more helpful than “resolving it right now!”

With their changes and insights, Zoe and Abe began to see a slowing of the spiral. They began to see small signs that one good turn did, often, lead to another one in return. Their story about their relationship started to shift a little. Whereas before they had begun to see themselves as helplessly stuck in the downward spiral, they now could see the possibility that even though there was tension in the air and an argument seemed to be brewing, there might still be a chance to have their interaction turn out well. For Abe and Zoe, the shift, small though it was, wasn’t just theoretical or based on principle. They actually started to see one another differently. Simply put, Abe began to get glimpses again of Zoe his friend; and Zoe began to see, for the first time in a long time, Abe the good guy. These new pictures of one another, led to more changes and helped them start to see new, hopeful possibilities for their relationship.

3. They became more open to one another’s language and signals. From my perspective it seems to be a perennial challenge for couples who are stuck to be able to respond respectfully or compassionately to one another’s signals of having had enough, or being worried or afraid. Instead, like Zoe and Abe, when couples are stuck in a long-standing pattern of arguing and blame, they can be highly reluctant to respond warmly or graciously when the partner signals that they’re too worn out to talk, or too worked up to be able to focus, or too stressed to be able to resolve something right now. And if the relationship is highly stressed and has become hostile, then the request to wait until a better time to talk can actually be treated as a political maneuver, as an attempt to manipulate. If you’ve been there, I probably don’t need to say anymore for you to understand how easy it is to be “deaf” and “blind” to the other’s messages that they just aren’t able to do this right now.

Abe and Zoe had been deaf and blind to one another for a long time. But building on the new, positive movement in their relationship, they each tried to really pay attention, and treat at face value, what the other communicated about their readiness to talk. Instead of being suspicious of the other’s motives, they allowed the other’s words to carry weight. “I’m not ready” started to mean, “I’m not ready,” instead of “I’m waiting for a more advantageous time,” or “since you’re ready to talk, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of talking.” And beyond just starting to trust the other’s words, they also started to “see” the other’s body language and let themselves interpret it softly or with empathy. Zoe’s yawn in the early evening, which often maddened Abe, started to be seen by Abe as indicating Zoe’s tiredness or being ready for a break, not as anything personal about him. Zoe could now entertain the possibility that when Abe closed his eyes and started breathing deeply and slowly, it was to calm himself down and get perspective, rather than to indicate that Zoe was an idiot.

I don’t want to give the impression that once they started down this path of greater empathy and respect that everything was smooth sailing for Zoe and Abe; it wasn’t. But what they did say was that once they started to let themselves see the other in a “good light” rather than a “critical light” or “suspicious light,” they started to find evidence that this could be a good relationship. And they continued to kindle the hope that their efforts could actually pay off.

4. They started to change the “rules” for their arguments. Although most of their “rules” for arguing remained implicit, Abe and Zoe actually discussed and put in place a couple of rules that really made a difference.

One rule was that if a conversation was disrupted they needed to return to it and finish it up. Whether it was disrupted by conflict or hostility, a phone call, a work demand, or by their children, they agreed to come back together later and complete the conversation. It wasn’t a highly formalized rule: they didn’t specify that it had to occur within a certain time frame or follow any particular guidelines. But they did agree that they should return to the discussion as soon as possible, when they had the capacity to talk in a way that would make things better. With this rule in place (which for Zoe and Abe, was only really possible after they made the other changes discussed earlier), they started to gain a sense of confidence in the relationship. That is, they started to see the relationship as one that could get “clean”: not having a lot of loose ends dangling, fights unfinished, issues that couldn’t be discussed or resolved. They weren’t there yet, but they could see that it was possible for them to actually raise an issue of importance and eventually come to a clean, friendly, satisfactory resolution.

The second rule went hand-in-hand with the first: no violent outbursts. For Abe and Zoe, “violent” had never meant doing physical harm to one another, but it had meant frightening outbursts of punching walls or the air (by Abe), yelling (by both), and threats to leave (by Zoe). In the past, such actions were so infuriating (and often frightening), that they immediately led to an escalation of hostility, and the increased probability that one of them would either “storm off” or threaten to “kick out” the other. A related rule to this one was that if they felt like they were in a place where the only option seemed to be one of the above violent options, then they had permission to leave the room, without being pursued or taunted by the other.

Zoe was particularly articulate in pointing out that their agreement to return to finish up a conversation allowed her to be much more comfortable in letting Abe walk away when he was too worked up. Before the new rules, she felt she had to keep Abe in the room, to keep the conversation alive, because at least they were talking (albeit loudly and unproductively) about something that mattered (and not ignoring it or addressing it only with snide remarks and sarcasm). Now she had a sense of confidence that if Abe left the room during an argument, he would eventually come back, and they could make progress. In essence, allowing each other to walk away kept a tense situation from become even more intense, and, thereby, limited the amount of damage they would do to the relationship in the name of “working it out now!”

5. Life helped them out. Just as the circumstances of a couple’s life can often add to their stress and make it difficult to find the time or energy or good will to work though difficulties, life circumstances can also help at times. For Abe and Zoe, a few good weeks in other areas of their lives helped them develop the ability to “agree to stop.”

Their young son finished teething and was becoming better rested and less fussy. Zoe’s work had calmed down, plus she got a raise, after a particularly stressful time in the life of her company. And Abe was coming out of a painful crisis in his own extended family – the kind of time that always left him feeling torn between his loyalty to his current family with Zoe, and his desire to help his parents and siblings with their struggles. Abe also gave credit to having found the right dosage for his anti-depressants. He had been so low in recent months, that even thinking about different ways of talking with Zoe took more energy than he could muster.

6. They learned to stop before things got too heated. Building on all of the above, Abe and Zoe became much better at recognizing the signs that said they were headed toward a downward spiral, and now had the ability and permission to say to one another, “Let’s stop and come back to this later.” Now, their words were far less likely to be met with suspicion. Now, they were much more likely to express themselves in ways that indicated their hopes for and trust in the relationship rather than despair. Now, they were much less likely to feel a sense of urgency or desperation: so a “stop,” now, was more like a pause until a better time, and less like they were in the grips of a “do or die,” “now or never” situation.

From a narrative perspective

If we think of Zoe and Abe as having enacted their preferred story of stopping before the destructive, downward spiral sucked them down with it, we can see that their ability to do so did not emerge “out of the blue.” Instead, the preferred story of saying “stop” and having it mean something was actually built on top of several other “smaller” stories that made it more and more likely that they could stop. These smaller stories included: the changes they made; their self-reflections and insights; their openness to one another; their new rules for arguing; some help from their life circumstances; and a greater understanding of a fast-moving downward spiral that was better stopped before it started.

Zoe and Abe’s ability to say “stop” is similar to a movie where the opening scene is actually from the “end” of the story, chronologically. As we watch this opening scene, we can see that something has just been resolved, and can see the people or bits of evidence that have been key to its resolution. But if that’s all we know, it’s likely to have little impact on us. If the movie actually ended at that point, we’d be far less than satisfied. But if the movie then takes us back to the beginning, to the original crime or dilemma, and we can see the complexities of the situation. And then we see the pieces of the mystery put together in a way that points toward an understanding, a solution, or a conviction of the guilty parties, we gain a much greater appreciation of what’s been accomplished. And then if the opening scene is re-played, what at first may have seemed like an interesting-but-not-compelling resolution, now takes on richness and depth and becomes highly satisfying.

Similarly, with Zoe and Abe, their ability to say stop, when we understand more of what went into it, becomes not just the application of a good-marriage principle that they read in a book or on a blog! Instead it reflects a rich, detailed story of how they’ve made changes in their relationship to have it reflect their values and dreams. It becomes a story of how the small things add up to the big things. It becomes a story of how they each notice their thoughts and emotions and actions, and consider how well those are working toward what they want in their relationship. And it becomes a story of how they each allow the other to have influence: Together they build or construct the story of what this relationship is and what it is to become. So by the end, “agreeing to stop,” isn’t a cheesy cliché, but a rich story capturing Abe and Zoe’s best efforts and intentions, reflecting and supporting their hopes.