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What do you do when your date or partner says something that rubs you the wrong way?

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Are you able to contain your emotional response and calmly listen to him? Do you talk it out and resolve things in a way that is acceptable to both of you? And then do you go about your day, without feeling resentment or bitterness?

Or, do you get angry with him and snap back? Do you keep the upset to yourself?

After 100,000 hours of counseling couples at their relationship breaking point, I can say with full confidence that most people don’t react calmly when their partner says something that upsets them.

They become defensive, shut down, or try to prove their partners wrong.

If you’re like a lot of people, your initial response is to become defensive. You either shut down and disconnect from your partner in a show of passive-aggressive defensiveness, or you speak up and try to discount or invalidate what your partner has said. Before you know it, you’re enmeshed in a heated argument. For example:

Partner A: “You sure have been preoccupied lately.”

Partner B: “Don't you realize how overloaded I am?”

Partner A: “YOU’RE overloaded? You have no idea how much I do around here!”

How Emotional Reactivity Blocks Intimacy

Many years ago, in the early days of my therapeutic career, I frequently observed couples diligently trying to follow my directions in a session and then just “losing it” when a challenging remark overcame them.

I followed the advice of a wise medicine man who gave me an eagle feather. Only the partner holding it was able to speak. It did help some, but it was totally ineffective as soon as the non-holding partner stopped listening and began building his or her next move.

When we feel threatened or our relationship security seems in danger, our immediate emotional response tends to be a primitive one – we become defensive and adrenalized. Our partner says or does something that makes us anticipate grief and we jump into the fray to minimize the anticipated damage.

But by reacting emotionally, you’ve sabotaged intimacy. And you’ve actually cheated yourself of an opportunity to evolve as an individual and to grow closer to your partner.

Inquiry Before Judgement: The Critical Mindset

Woman smiling at man

There is another approach to communicating with your partner when you feel challenged by him.

All it takes to stop the destructive cycle of emotional reactivity is to do just that: stop. Instead of jumping to judgement and being overruled by our emotions, we engage our intellect.

I call my approach “Inquiry Before Judgement.” It is rooted in a fundamental search for truth – a desire to understand yourself and your partner better so you can achieve deeper levels of intimacy as a couple while growing as an individual.

Our ability to practice Inquiry Before Judgement is what sets us apart from other mammals who either retreat or attack in the face of danger. Instead of going into fight or flight mode, we go into curiosity and question mode. We ask why and try to explore the source of the conflict. We ask:

  • Why did my partner say what he said?
  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • What can I learn from this interaction?

Let’s revisit the couple at the beginning of this message and see how their conversation could have gone differently using Inquiry Before Judgement:

Partner A: “You sure have been preoccupied lately.”

Partner B: “That sounds like you’re feeling something you’re not saying. What’s up?”

Partner A: “I didn’t mean to be that obvious. Yeah, I’m missing you but you’re working so hard, I didn’t feel it was right to ask for more time right now, and I guess I was afraid you’d be resentful if I did.”

Partner B: “Honey, I really appreciate your being careful and not putting more pressure on me until I get this trial over, but I always want to know how you are and what you need. Maybe I can’t give it all to you right now, but I’ll do what I can.”

Partner A: “I always forget how much you’re there if I were just more open and not so fearful.”

This dialogue may sound a little too good to be true, but it’s just the kind of transformation I’ve seen in couples who commit to Inquiry Before Judgement.

Watch Your Relationship Transform

You might be thinking, “This all looks easy on paper, but how do I learn to do this when I’m feeling upset – or when I’ve triggered my partner?“

When you subscribe to receive my free relationship advice newsletter (below), I’ll show you how to approach conflict as a team so you can resolve relationship problems – even long-standing ones. You’ll also learn about:

  • The common communication pitfalls couples can face and how to navigate them with ease so you emerge stronger and more connected
  • How to tell if your relationship could be headed for trouble – and how to avert further damage and get back on track
  • How to use the built-in relationship medicine every relationship has (but many couples don’t know it!)
  • How to get your partner to understand you like never before (even if you’ve been together for years)
  • The real way to create an unshakeable foundation of honesty within your relationship (and be more intimate than ever)

I’ve seen dramatic transformations in the couples and singles I’ve taught these techniques to, and I look forward to hearing how they create deep intimacy in your life.

Start here:

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