What’s the dumbest argument you’ve ever had with a partner? Mine happened in a little blue convertible, driving to my former boyfriend’s cabin. We were in love, but we clashed often. We stopped for ice cream, and he brought me the wrong flavor. I complained loudly, he fired back. Then he reached over, took the sundae, and threw it out of the moving car.
I stared at him in open-mouthed shock. Then I clearly saw how our discontented minds caused the harsh words and deeds. In that moment I had a choice. I could keep criticizing, or I could contact my heart. So I laughed, he relaxed, and I pledged to learn to fight fair.
Is there really something to fight about? Or are your arguments all in your head?
Sure, I am a love expert now, but the truth is, I used to have tumultuous relationships. I mistook tantrums for passion. As for make up sex? Overrated. If we have to hurt each other in order to get close again, something is wrong. So when I am asked if a couple can have a great relationship even if they fight a lot, I say no, they can’t. Sparks should come from connecting bodies, not clashing egos.
Let’s take a mindful look at what actually happens when we are feeling anxious or hurt during an argument: We’re having a physiological reaction coupled with a mental story. A heightened heart beat and cascade of adrenaline dance with thoughts like “you don’t love me” or “this relationship isn’t working” or “what kind of moron mistakes chocolate for hot fudge.” But these temporary thoughts are not real. We are holding on to mistaken beliefs, defending our point of view against our perceived enemy—you know, the person we love when we are not triggered.
What happens if we soften and breathe? What are we defending anyway?
I’m not saying you should bury your anger when your partner says or does something that hurts you. But realize that the emotion is in your head. It’s body plus story. So to love mindfully, try these techniques. First, scan your body and self-soothe your reactivity. Don’t speak. Wait until you can be reasonably calm and fair. Second, be more kind in your mind. Instead of judging your partner and voicing criticism, choose to create appreciation and affection for their quirks. Maybe they will do the same for you.
If you are still upset and feel you must say something, remember it is how you speak that matters. Difficult emotions and raised voices are acceptable, but personal attacks or threats to leave are not. Cultivate kindness, patience, and perspective taking.
It is also critical to learn the difference between a significant problem that needs processing and a temporary mind state that arises and passes away. Act on real issues, for unfinished business accumulates. However, many love dramas are no more substantial than the imagined monster under our childhood bed. If you wait and observe, a mind demon may dissolve in the flashlight of awareness. Then, let it go. After all, I could have simply thanked him for the ice cream.