Jules and Sue came into marriage counseling, clueless as to why there was so much pain and suffering in their relationship. After listening to each of them describe their situation, it became obvious what the problem was: Neither of them could say anything about the other without having their statements laced with harsh judgments and negative criticism. They were both brought up in families where such communication was practiced on an ongoing basis; neither of them had any idea that it was even possible to respond to hurtful or condemning words with anything other than a counterattack or defensiveness. Nearly every conversation, whether it involved a restaurant choice or a possible vacation, inevitably deteriorated into a frenzy of reactive listening, name-calling and judgments that left them both feeling wounded and resentful.
Destructive cycles of reactive listening inevitably result in prolonged suffering, and often in divorce, if the pattern is not interrupted. The constant wear and tear on the fabric of the relationship erodes the goodwill that was once present in the relationship and threatens not only the integrity of the partnership, but the health and well-being of each partner. The stress that they experience is not only emotionally damaging to each of them, but physically damaging as well. It is not an exaggeration to describe the participants in such ongoing interactions as victims of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They each, however, are perpetrators as well as victims in this cycle. They will continue to be until they take responsibility for interrupting their own reactivity, rather than focusing on what their partner is doing that makes them feel defensive.
When we feel attacked or blamed for something, the impulse to engage in reactive listening can feel overwhelmingly compelling, even impossible to resist, yet that is precisely what we are challenged to do in such cases. Resisting the temptation to counterattack does not mean to give up, or be defeated. It also does not mean to accept blame or fault for a situation, or to agree that the other person is right and that you are wrong. It simply means that we are not attempting to coerce, manipulate, or punish our partner for making us feel hurt, angry, or threatened.
Not fighting back does not equate with admitting you are wrong.
It means that you are more committed to enhancing trust and respect in the relationship than you are with being right or punitive. It does, however, take a good deal more strength and courage to manage our own tendency towards reactivity when we feel offended or wounded, than it does to indulge our desire for defensiveness and counterattack. While it does ultimately take two to restore a broken relationship to wholeness again, it only takes one to end the destructive attack/defend/counterattack cycle. When one can embody authentic honesty and vulnerability in the face of hostility, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the other to continue to relate as an adversary. Defensiveness reinforces the urge to continue to attack. Vulnerability cools aggressive impulses down. But not always, and not necessarily immediately, which is why it does feel like a risk to drop protective strategies in the face of a threat, and why it takes more courage to do this than it does to fight back.
And yet it is possible for anyone with a clear intention to take steps in this direction, regardless of how broken-down the relationship may be at a given time. It requires a willingness to notice and resist the impulse to withhold the angry words that want to fly out of our mouth in response to an insult. It also requires us to take a moment to pause and check to see if anything really needs to be spoken at all, and if it does, to form it into constructive communication as opposed to “constructive criticism.”
Non-reactive listening requires a high degree of self-restraint.
The good news is that with practice, (and relationships generally provide lots of opportunities) our capacity for development in this area can expand greatly. Even after a judgment has been blurted out, non-reactive listening can keep the situation from deteriorating further. When our partner takes shots, we can lay down flowers. For example, rather than arguing that you are NOT a bad parent, you can acknowledge that the other person has concerns about your parenting style and that you are open to hearing them, but only if they can be stated in ways that are not overtly hostile or personally condemning.
When a strong emotion is activated within us in response to someone’s words or actions, our reaction represents an attempt to mitigate the uncomfortable aspects of the feeling. For instance, when someone says, “That’s a ridiculous idea” or, “That’s stupid,” we’re likely to feel hurt or invalidated. Acknowledging what we’re feeling isn’t easy, but it will usually produce very different results than counter-attacking.
There is nothing wrong with expressing opinions. We do it all the time, and often that can lead to provocative, worthwhile discussions. But sometimes, when the opinion is about the other person, rather than the content of what they said, it’s more likely that one or both people will feel misunderstood, criticized, put down, unappreciated, judged, scolded, and shamed. When these feelings are present, the urge towards reactivity and defensiveness is strong.
Counterattacking can make us feel like we are less vulnerable and more protected. In counter-attacking, we put the other person on notice that we don’t intend to allow them to threaten us. It’s not easy to override this hard-wired tendency, which raises the very real questions: “Why should I turn the other cheek when I feel blamed, criticized or attacked? Why shouldn’t I react by putting the other person in their place? What kind of person would allow themselves to be attacked without attempting to defend themselves?”
These are very important questions that each of us needs to consider. In choosing what we consider to be an effective response to feeling attacked, it really comes down to what our intention is in the matter. If it is our intention to create a safer, more respectful and trusting environment within our relationship, then resisting the temptation to counterattack is the smartest (but not necessarily the easiest) thing we can do.
Judgments, unsolicited opinions, advice, criticism, blame, faultfinding, name-calling and other types of verbal violence, are all forms of aggression. When we meet aggression with aggression, there is an intensification and amplification of the feelings of fear and anger. When this happens, we both feel more threatened, less secure and less safe.
Most of us understand that fighting violence with violence only creates more suffering.
The challenge for many of us when it comes to reactive listening is not that we don’t want to break these vicious cycles, it’s that we don’t feel that we can. When we perceive that we are being threatened, it’s easy to feel that the only alternative to reactivity is passivity. Consequently, it’s not surprising that many of us choose reactivity over passivity. Passivity is a state of inertia and inaction in the face of danger. It is a strategy for dealing with an underlying feeling of helplessness. As an alternative to the aggression/passivity dichotomy, we can take an active but non-aggressive stance to assert our own truth in the moment.
To do so, we need to know what our own truth is. To know it, we have to direct our attention to ourselves and redirect our attention away from the other person. This isn’t easy in the face of strong emotions. When the other person shows up to us as a threat, we perceive them as the enemy. If we take our eyes off the other person for even a second, he may exploit that momentary lapse of your attention. If we are dealing with a real enemy who poses a genuine threat, then it may be very appropriate to maintain this external focus until we feel safe enough to be more vulnerable with them.
This doesn’t mean that we should be vulnerable with everybody. If we make the assessment that someone’s primary intention is to cause harm or exploit our vulnerability to serve their own agenda, openness in a situation like that would be inappropriate, even foolish.
In redirecting awareness from others to our own experience, we can check in and notice our emotional state, notice how deep or rapid our breathing is, our heart rate, body temperature, cold or sweating, etc. Sometimes we can do this even while we are engaged in dialogue. When emotions are running high, however, this kind of check-in may not be possible. In such cases, it is helpful to take a brief “time out” or “mini-break.” Generally this is accomplished in a matter of minutes.
Clearing the space for us to connect to our own experience is the most valuable and effective thing we can do in the midst of an exchange of strong emotion. And speaking about our own feelings and needs is what allows for the connection that convinces us that we are on the same team, joined in our commitment to handle whatever challenges present themselves in the relationship.
When we can both meet in the presence of this shared awareness, our experience can transform from fear to understanding, from pain to gratitude, and from separateness to connection. Defensive patterns don’t dissolve overnight, but with practice, they can be put in their place. It’s not easy, but the payoffs are worth the effort. Well worth it.