Filling your partner’s cup, listening and understanding when they need it the most, is an art. When an empty cup equals a bad mood, it can be quite complicated. This morning, Deb was feeling depleted and in a bad mood. She has had even less time than she usually has for herself. She was also feeling frustrated with her website and not having the time to work on it. We are going to New York this weekend and she said she didn’t want to go.
In the meantime, it’s early in the morning. The kids are getting ready for school and I have an 8:30 am session. I start to feel her upset in my body. The tension in my chest builds as does the impulse to just tell her to stop. I didn’t tell her to stop though. I listened and tried to understand why she was feeling the way she was.
In this case, it wasn’t hard to understand. The last two months have been a tremendous emotional drain. It started with my mom going to the hospital at the beginning of February. We flew out there, came back home, and my mom died just ten days later. We then went back to New York and spent two weeks there, came back here and then we had a slew of visitors, which was beautiful but it meant postponing personal projects.
So, I understood exactly why she was feeling so depleted and exhausted. Not reacting and listening allowed for the physical reaction I was having to subside. Then she got dressed. I put a couple of songs on for Emma for us to sing: Home by Phillip Phillips and Roar by Katy Perry. She actually requested the second one because she likes to roar.
By not reacting and getting sucked into the vortex of Deb’s bad mood, I was able to stay present with Emma and also stay present for Debbie. When she came back into the kitchen I told her I understood why she was feeling bad. I asked her what she needed. That helped her to feel seen and understood and cared for and helped her to turn the dial down herself. She told me how much she appreciated my reaction, which was validating to me. It could have easily gotten ugly if when Deb was spewing I reacted, which would have led to back and forth bickering, which would have upset the kids, adding even more stress.
The decision not to react was the pivotal moment. That created space for Deb to express herself and for me to settle. This is obviously an example of things going well and I am only able to provide an example like this because of the countless examples of things not going well.
Another common trap is the compare and contrast game where she says I’m tired and you say you’re tired too. That will almost always result in a fight.
It is hard in these moments to step back and allow our partners to just be upset without getting triggered ourselves, defensive, or trying to fix things. The critical pieces here involve making an effort not to react impulsively, trying to understand what your partner is experiencing, which involves listening, and asking your partner what they need. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, and you end up bickering, you can still do this. You might have to apologize for reacting the way you did initially, but then copy and paste the listening, understanding, and asking what they need.
There will be times when you get triggered and it gets the best of you and that’s okay. The most important thing is to commit to paying attention, cultivating awareness of your actions and reactions. The more aware you are, the more you can understand the what and the why.
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David B. Younger, Ph.D. is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 13-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old toy poodle.
Originally published at www.loveafterkids.com