Argue With, Not About, Emotion

Most couples will initially present relationship difficulty as “a communication problem.” Many workplace conflicts will be “resolved” by a commitment to better communication. Stacks of volumes have been written about communication in all sorts of relationships and settings. In this little postlet, I want to highlight the role of emotions in contentious discourse. Reversing course, let’s start with the solution.

compassion

Doctor Patient Partnership – Regina Holliday

  • Do not justify how you feel or that you have some right to feel the way you do. Your emotions are not debatable. They are your truth. They may spring from cognitively shaky ground; they may arise from outright delusions. Yet emotions are happening and they are part of, and sometimes most of what we simply call “experience.” Just report on them. Voice them. Wave your arms or shake your fists about them. Definitely make faces. Most importantly, own them. They are yours, only yours. Try to let go of the idea that something or someone “made you feel” this way, like you have no freedom. That you feel, however, is a simple fact and if somebody wants to understand your experience, s/he will accept this fact and look further. You cannot persuade a person of the nose on your own face. Do not try. It needs no justification.
  • Do not try to undermine someone’s emotion. Do not attempt to demonstrate or argue that s/he “should not” feel a particular way, that s/he has “no basis or right” to express this or that emotion, or how “nobody would” have such feelings. See the first point. Feelings are not right or wrong, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. They do not exceed or fall short of some mythical standard of appropriateness. They are neutral information. You can either use the information or discard it. What part of his/her memory, which internal script, which cognitive construct leads to this emotion? What is its precise flavour (what are the lesser affects mixed in)? What was the trigger? To begin to answer these questions is called empathy and the sharp point of an emotion is a sign leading you in the right direction. The volume and intensity of the emotion is proportional to the visibility and urgency of the sign (from the smallest fine print to the largest neon billboard). Do not argue about the sign.

“Heated” arguments are fueled by emotion and become self-perpetuating and never-ending when the content becomes the emotions themselves. We assume that the negative emotions of others are direct messages to us conveying that we are doing or have done something wrong. Their emotions are heard as our put-downs. (Technically, this is shaming and therefore most verbal/emotional fights are shame battles.) Probably this interpretation is the strongest and hardest to counter in couples’ conflicts, because the stakes are higher than in all other relationships. To counter this offense, I attack what I see as the source, the other’s emotion. Your feeling is wrong! How dare you!! (express that offensive feeling with no justification). Your “behaviour” is totally unwarranted. I have just invalidated the other person’s experience. S/he will definitely not like that (also highly shaming). When I say “attack,” I of course mean with anger. Then the process reverses and we are in an infinite loop.

Arguments about emotions are false from the premise and so there is no winning. Each thinks they can win by a better justification of their feelings and a more effective undermining of the other’s feelings. Such a communication strategy only inflicts a mutual emotional beating.

The effective response to someone’s emotion is empathy. The better response is compassion. The best response is mercy.

Everybody Needs a Creation Story

For mental security, you have to know whence you came. In the disintegration of shame, in the free fall of self-worth, in the evaporation of self-confidence, there must be some kind of backstop, a place past which you can descend no further. Beyond the backstop is the abyss, a word used in ancient scripture for pre-creation (Gen 1:2). The backstop is thus creation itself and to make it real and “sensible,” you must have a story around it. Creation is a big deal, so your story must be grand.

The Creation of Adam (detail) – Michelangelo, c. 1512

Here is my creation story. I rely heavily on it.

My creation story is an appropriation from, and an expression of, my chosen spiritual tradition, which shares its basic outline (the philosophia perennis) with the mystical branches of most of the world’s enduring religions. Starting from Aristotle and continuing through Thomas Aquinas, I believe in the “ultimate source, first cause or unoriginated origin,” which has many names or no name, but which I will simply call “God.” God is infinite and ultimate. From these qualities we can distill the more practical values of goodness, truth and beauty.

God is abundant and overflowing. God wants to express Godself. The known and unknown universe is God’s self-expression. God speaks and creation happens, not just once but in every moment. Some call this God’s Word (Jn 1:1-3), but perhaps “encyclopedia” is also a useful term, because the universe covers all that God wants to say. Just on this planet we are amazed by the plenitude of flora and fauna. Occasionally there is a news story about some new creature discovered at some remote location. Another entry in God’s encyclopedia.

jelly-fish

 

Not just forms and species have entries in the big book. Every instance of every species has a separate entry. God’s expression has a different nuance in this jellyfish versus that jellyfish versus the one that lived a million years ago. And so it is with human beings.

Who are you? You are a unique expression of God. What God has to say in and through the totality of you has never been said before, is not being said elsewhere, and will never be said again. Even the human embryo that spontaneously aborts before the mother even knows she is pregnant was a unique, once-and-for-always piece of God’s self-expression. All of this, seen and unseen. And yet, the world is finite; the universe is finite; neither will ever fully express the infinite God.

Everybody’s default creation story is their family of origin – mom, dad, siblings, whoever your early caregivers were. The trouble with this story is that it is at best, wounding and at worst, toxic. We are all wounded by our families because they, like all people, are wounded themselves. In more severe cases, the wounding amounts to developmental trauma and chronic shame, causing significant personality and relationship issues in adulthood. How can you hold yourself together if your mother always tore you down or your father abused you?

Interestingly, adopted children, even those in best-case families, eventually want to know about their biological parents. They have an unshakable sense that a foundational chapter in their creation stories is missing.

The causality of how I got here obviously runs, in part, through my mother and my father. Maybe my “self” would not have existed without them and the random events that brought them together. They are my “entry point into history.” However, God was clearly going to express “me,” one way or another. God is intentional. Thus, I am not primarily my mother’s son or my father’s son, and my children are ultimately not all about me. The greater truth is that my father is my brother and my daughter is my sister, all gazing back to the One who speaks (more specifically, loves) us into existence.

“God does not love you because you are good. You are good because God loves you.” God, the infinite source of goodness, is the necessary and sufficient condition for your goodness. Contra Descartes, it is not “I think, therefore I am.” It is “God loves me, therefore I am.” This is what is means to be “created in the image of God.” If God doesn’t love you, you are not going to hell; you never existed in the first place.

A unique image of God, like a facet of an infinitely cut diamond, is your True Self – who you really are. We spend our lifetimes trying to buy into this ultimate reality. Our False Self, which is not bad (more like sad), seems to be both the means and the obstacle to our self-realization. We wrestle and struggle with it. Sometimes it feels like we are losing (the False Self feels more real). Compassion and mercy are always needed to cope with the low points. The question of your goodness, your worthiness, however, is a fake question if you have an adequate creation story.

 

12 Step Recovery: Shadow Boxing

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

The shadow is the underbelly of the psyche, the vulnerable and messy side, the part that we would rather not see, let alone own. It is not bad yet our first inclination would be to reject it. We are sure that it does not fit into our persona, our “best” side. It shows up in consciousness as “defects of character,” which are easy to excuse or deny.

shadow-boxing

Shadow Boxing – Steve Huston

In terms of emotional addiction, the shadow covers our programs for happiness, those insatiable appetites for security, esteem, pleasure or control. Moreover, it conceals all of the maladaptive thoughts and behaviors we will deploy to get those appetites fed. When our programs are thwarted, our shadow is revealed in irritation, anger and what I term thrashing/flailing – things we say or do but do not really mean.

“You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.” Owning the problem is two-thirds of the solution (three-quarters?). As soon as you expose the insidious device it loses much of its power; it comes out of the shadows and into the light where it can be gradually transformed, integrated and forgiven. Christian scripture presents the image of demons, which I think are an apt representation of addiction. Jesus heals them by merely calling them out. “I see you!”

“Moral inventory” sounds a bit like an exercise in flagellation. Don’t let it be. You will not be judged or condemned by a Higher Power. Anybody who cares about your inventory does not matter and everybody who matters will not care. Instead they will have compassion for the True Self that is deeper than both shadow and persona. Therefore, let your inventory be “fearless” of shame and blame.

The fifth step allows you to experience the promise of acceptance and compassion and know that you are still good! The demons can only suffocate you from the inside. Once let out, they flee; you do not disintegrate. At the same time, this step makes ownership real and eviscerates any lingering denial. It holds your feet to the fire and begins to make you accountable – a conscious act of coming out of one self.

These steps are a movement of rigorous honesty. Only with honesty can a person relate to and be supported by a Spirit-filled community.

Marriage Must Satisfy This Equation

The success of a marriage depends upon the relative values of four variables – really, two instances of two variables, one instance for each partner. Let’s call S the Shadow, that part of the self where wounds hide (some call them defects of character; I call them wounds). Wounds are revealed, first to oneself and then to the other, in an act of intimacy. Then let E stand for Enlightenment, a common word for maturity in many spiritual traditions. Carl Jung and others called it individuation. The “light within” that comes through spiritual and psychological maturity (wisdom) illuminates and integrates one’s shadow into the whole person (healing). In marriage, enlightenment provides visibility and calm when your partner’s shadow is cast over you.

the-ouija-board-1920

The Ouija Board – Norman Rockwell – 1920

Each partner has wounds, more or less, and each partner is enlightened, more or less, which makes for two instances of these variables. Thus we have Shusband and Swife, Ehusband and Ewife and the marriage predicate is:

(Ewife > Shusband) & (Ehusband > Swife)

E > S means that one has enough enlightenment to stand in the other’s shadow with equanimity and compassion. Put a different way, one can hold the other without becoming overwhelmed, offended, defensive, resentful.

This “equation” might seem rather obvious, but here is the real point. Nowhere is it stated what are the literal values of E and S. There is no cultural standard value of E or S. There is no threshold above which you can say, “Well, her shadow is obviously too dark” or below which you can claim, “He is a certified dimwit.” The variables are always relative – too dark for his brightness, too dimwitted for her shadow. Without objective standards there can be no blame.

Instead of deciding who is on the wrong side of the non-existent human norm, the way forward, either within the marriage or after the divorce, is two-fold. Grow further towards enlightenment and integrate more of your shadow. A couple has to meet each other half-way in this work. A newly single person wants to be in a better position for the next time.

Marriage Requires Accommodation

If we have been trusted to look at the depth of our partners’ wounds and through empathy touch their pain, we cannot help but be moved to compassion (unless we are completely blinded and numbed by our own pain). Without a compassionate response, your partner will immediately retreat behind old defenses and you probably won’t get a second chance. Assuming that your heart can look outward, what is your next move?

billiards is easy to learn

Billiards Is Easy To Learn – Norman Rockwell, 1920

Here are some thoughts leading to responses that are not going to work:

  • Eureka!, I thought. She finally admitted that it is her problem. I knew I was right!
  • Now he has to change and he knows it.
  • I’ll do everything I can to help her fix that problem.
  • Poor thing. I guess I’ll give him another chance.

A better idea is to participate and reciprocate, as in:

  • Gosh, if we’re being that honest here, I could share a few things.

Seeing Through the Heart Space

Still, a direct response to your spouse’s wounds is invited. Empathetic acknowledgement is the action in the moment. Beyond that, do understand that these wounds likely have roots in childhood and are not disappearing anytime soon, if ever. Your partner’s radical change is not right around the corner. The difference in your relationship is that you now have the interpretive key for his or her out-sized defenses and aggression. With this key, you can take less offense, dampen irritation and stay cool, for more of the world’s pain is caused by taking offense rather than by giving offense. Remind yourself that what is really happening is that his/her wounds are crying out and then recall the innocent one who received them and the powerless one who confessed them.

Accommodation Is an Act of Mercy

Then you make a series of accommodations. The word means “towards a fit.” You go out of your way to avoid the irritants and positions that are uncomfortable for your spouse’s wounds. You exercise greater patience. You act this way not because of any requirement of fairness or honor. You accommodate as an act of mercy. It is needed, so you provide it, with no expectation of recompense. Henri Nouwen wrote of healing friendship:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

You want to be that friend for your beloved.

Marriage Conflict: Vulnerability is Disarming

I am unhappy with my spouse. At best I am disappointed and at worst I am fully ticked off. The tender support of a loving partner that I imagined in the beginning isn’t happening. Our relationship “isn’t working out,” to say the least. I still can’t believe that anybody, let alone the person who claims to love me, could be so cold and even callous in ignoring my needs. On top of that, some the behaviors I see repeatedly, some of things that are said, are just not right, not for a sensible adult, and at times they are simply mean. If I say anything it gets thrown back in my face – all my fault.

In the struggle of life, I find myself in the cruelly ironic position that my own spouse is against me, not for me. Is what I’m feeling closer to love or hate?

if only mother could see me now

If Only Mother Could See Me Now – Norman Rockwell, 1918

One day my spouse “wants to talk.” I expect the usual litany of my faults and shortcomings. Already my blood pressure is rising. But within seconds I realize that it’s a very different kind of talk. I’m not offended; in fact it’s not even about me. Not an apology, but a kind of confession. I hear about fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and shame – things that go back a long time, even before we met. There is some acknowledgement that my needs are real along with an admission that the strength and skill to respond is just not there. What I think should be automatic is actually very hard without any training, any early example to follow.

This talk feels very honest and very sad. And I suddenly find myself seeing my spouse with new eyes. I just can’t be angry with this miserable person right now. All my standard defenses and counter-arguments seem pointless and inappropriate. I’m disarmed. Instead I actually feel a tinge of sorrow for the raw vulnerability that I’m hearing – a first moment of compassion.