There is a question that has floated around my head, even before I became a relationship counsellor in Lytham St Annes. The question is ‘Why, when we love someone, can we sometimes say the nastiest, most hurtful things to them in the heat of a row?’ By saying cruel words to our partner, we are making them feel bad about themselves, leaving them feeling vulnerable and unloved, not to mention the damage to the intimacy and connection our words cause to the relationship. Furthermore, when the dust has settled and we are in a calmer place, we feel bad about ourselves for causing someone we love so much pain. We have to sit with the guilt of the hurt we have created. Nobody wins and nothing is resolved.
When couples come for relationship therapy, I see on one hand the depth of love they have for each other, but on the other I often feel so saddened about the pain they cause with the unkindness of their words. In this moment of conflict, what each of them actually want, is to be heard and understood by each other.
The thing is, we are never going to be heard or understood, if we are verbally attacking one another. Our partner will be defensive and way too busy thinking how to attack back, and before you know it, we are slap bang in the middle of a battle ground. Consequently, we will most definitely NOT be listening to each other, and we will NOT be trying to understand each other’s struggles in that moment. If we get trapped in the habit of using negativity, the thing we want the most is the thing we will get the least.
In Imago Relationship Therapy, when couples need to talk about problematic areas of difference, we work with what we call Zero Negativity. We practice this concept, as ultimately when conflicts arise in relationships, we need and want to feel safe, and no relationship will feel safe if negativity is present. Tone of voice, an eye roll, silence, criticism, shame, blame, deflection, disempowerment, accusations, and contempt are all examples of negativity.
Zero negativity is not about suppressing your thoughts and feelings, as this isn’t healthy for your relationship either. Harville and Helen, the founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, explain that ‘While zero negativity does mean reframing from all put downs, negative comments and behaviours, it does not mean we cannot express our negative feelings or frustrations, but we can share them in an intentional, responsible way!’
Zero negativity…….. here’s how!
- Commit to a period of time to practice Zero Negativity! 30 days, if possible, but if that feels too big, work with what you think is achievable, even 24 hours is a start!
- Give each other the gift of your full attention
- Talk about yourself rather than your partner. Talk about your own hurts, fears, reactions, desires etc. For example, ‘How I’m triggered when I feel ignored is……’ ‘How this makes me feel is……’ ‘How I behave when this happens is….’
- Negativity can be quite addictive for some people and difficult to let go of. So be patient with each other, it will take practice. Agree to give a signal to your partner if you experience a rupture. A simple verbal communication of ‘ouch’ will assist in helping to reframe the negativity and restore connection between you.
If you continue your communication in this positive way, alongside practicing appreciations every day (see my blog Critical or Appreciative) you will see a definite shift in your relationship.