“Last time I checked, you had a voice.” Before the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to shove them back down my throat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t and now I was forced to deal with the mess I’d made. I saw her back stiffen and her eyes narrow. On the surface she was ready to fight, underneath she was hurt. And why shouldn’t she be hurt and angry? In our 15 years together, we’d had our share of arguments but over the course of our relationship, we had created a culture between us, one forged in love and respect for one another. My words were a definite departure from our agreements, spoken and otherwise. The truth was, I’d heard her in the house struggling with not one, but both of our young boys. My impulse to run in and assist her was quickly extinguished by the taste of the cold beer I was drinking with my buddy in the backyard. I fortified my rationale with the idea that she was probably fine and if she really needed help she would call for me. Twenty minutes later when I came into our kitchen through the backdoor, that night's dinner was not the only thing simmering.
Lets face it, we’re “Mericans” for god’s sake and we win stuff. Winning is coded in our DNA and our romantic partners are not immune to this primal pull to be right and to win any argument we are involved in, big or small. Our egos do not like to be wrong, and experience it as something akin to annihilation or death. One of the biggest complaints couples report about their relationship are the cyclical or recurrent arguments that never find a resolution. Left unattended, this way of interacting builds walls of resentment between partners. As an expert in couples therapy, the problem I see is that most people have never learned the skill of taking responsibility.
I encounter this phenomenon almost daily in my therapy practice. Both partners armored against one another’s feelings, shut down to the other’s point of view, and like me standing in my kitchen, defending almost indefensible positions. Couples come to me locked in the battle of “If he would only… or If she would just…” I watch as these arguments unfold in my office and at some point, I throw my hands in the air and bark, “That’s enough, you two can do this at your house for free. I wonder what would happen if you stopped pointing the finger at each other and started pointing it back at yourself?” To puzzled glances, I unpack the concept of taking personal responsibility in your relationship, which put simply means, claiming the part of the mess that you created. It is fighting the urge to win the argument at all cost and attempting to bring empathy, compassion and understanding to the table. It’s the willingness to call penalties on yourself-- to out yourself for any bad behavior, for words you wished you had not spoken and for things you wished you could have done differently. Taking personal responsibility is not easy. At first clients report it feeling like an act of surrender, as if they are allowing their partner to engage in bad behavior or giving up their ground. Taking responsibility is not giving up ground, it is taking the higher road. It is the cornerstone of any truly mature relationship.
If you take nothing else from this article please take this, your relationship is a zero sum game. If your partner loses the argument, the relationship loses. And guess what, so do you. Oh and by the way, why would you want this person, who you claim to love so much, lose anything?
The practice of owning your part of the mess hits the reset button in your relationship. It sends a clear message-- I’m trying to do something different, to make the space between us a safer one and I love you more than I like being right. When we learn to call penalties on ourselves, our communication with our partner is immediately enhanced. We stop speaking through our defended parts of self as we seek first to understand and then hope to be understood. The added benefit is that we eradicate what I call the “love embargo”, a behavioral contract between two people that says, “I’ll do better by you, when you do better by me.” In this standoff, there is no flow of empathy or compassion and our ability to understand one another is shutdown. There is an embargo on love and the space between us becomes cold and sometimes dangerous. Behavioral contracts between partners are the death nail for couples, leaving the relationship to either stagnate in resentments or atrophy in anger and frustration. Everyday couples have an opportunity to turn a polarizing moment into a galvanizing one. They only need the courage and vulnerability to take responsibility. So if you find yourself in recurrent arguments that build resentment or if you are holed up in your fortified positions unable to find connection, ask yourself, what would love do now? Find the determination to own what you brought to the table and watch how your relationship changes.
That day in our kitchen, the space between my wife and I had gotten cold as her anger and frustration with me grew. I felt pulled to defend my indefensible position. After all, she could have asked for help. What was I supposed to have done, read her mind? Rather than hold up in my Alamo like position of plausible deniability, I decided to practice a little of what I preach daily to couples in my office. As she turned on her heel to exit the room, I threw up my hands and said, “Wait! Please wait. I should have never spoken to you like that. You didn’t deserve it and I’m so sorry. I should have come in to help you.” In that moment her eyes softened and so did the energy between us. She knew full well what I was doing and she was glad I was doing it.