When our partner behaves like an ass, we think they should own their wrongdoing and deliver an apology forthwith — preferably carved in stone and mounted on a plaque for all to see.
That seems fair. I mean, we just want responsibility taken, apologies given, and our needs met, am I right? What’s their problem?!
Here’s the deal. In the heat of a fight, we can all come across like an ass. Even you. Even when you’re “right.” Maybe you blame and criticize because you feel neglected. Or you shut down and withdraw because you worry your efforts are never enough. Chances are, the strategies you use to get out of conflict make you look like an asshole.
Don’t worry, it’s not just you. As we say in Ireland, “there’s two of ye in it.”
Everyone is doing the best they can to make love work. We all get reactive when we feel threatened in love, and our reactivity makes us look like a mean old ass. When we’re hurting, our reactions make sense. But on the receiving end of criticism or a cold shoulder, it feels like love and care are withheld, which spawns more reactivity. That’s a cycle that’s hard to break, my friend.
We all have ways that we long to be loved. Reactivity to your partner often stems from a deeper emotional need that existed inside you before you ever met. Wanna know what yours is? The next time you feel pissed off at your partner, be curious about what’s bothering you. I can often trace a judgment right to an unmet emotional need. If I feel disrespected, I might long to be seen or valued. If I judge another as cold, I might long to feel cared for. You get the idea.
By the way, if you’re thinking, “I’m never an ass when I fight,” that may be your biggest assholic trait. If you claim to be above reproach and believe that your partner needs to get their shit sorted for everything to be right in your world, that’s like full-fledged master of the jackass arts territory.
As I was saying … you’re not actually an asshole. You’re deploying strategies to limit the pain of rejection, abandonment or a felt sense of unworthiness. Strategies you mastered over your lifetime.
The good news it that underneath all that off-putting reactive carrying-on is the real vulnerable you.
Who is this vulnerable you? It’s the pure you that came into the world naked and wailing. The you before all the character-defining strategies that help you succeed in the world in everything other than love. The you who lives between the stimulus of your discomfort and your reactivity to it. The you who feels the emotional pain of disconnection.
Can’t remember the last time you got in touch with the real vulnerable you? You’re not alone. Most of us move at lightning speed from point A to point B.
Point A: You notice the stimulus of your discomfort (e.g., partner’s ass-like behavior)
Point B: You react!
At the end of the day nothing matters more than feeling connected to the one you love. So it makes sense that you get reactive when you feel that connection threatened. You make sense and your partner makes sense — even when you’re both behaving like arseholes.
To go from looking like an ass to showing your partner the sweet, lovable, vulnerable you, all you need is a wee bit of love and understanding. Not surprisingly, that won’t come from demanding accountability mid-argument.
Trying to make someone take responsibility in the middle of an emotional conflict is rarely a good idea and almost never a helpful first step. Instead, learn how to share the vulnerable you with your partner; this is the you that needs to be emotionally bonded to feel safe in the world.
It takes both of you to break the cycle, but here’s a first step.
The next time an argument kicks off between you and your partner be curious about yourself and be a witness to your own process.
- Accept your biology. You’re hardwired to be emotionally bonded with another. When anything threatens that connection, you’ll experience undeniable inner turmoil. Don’t fight it.
2. Shift your perspective on what is happening inside you, as well as between you and your partner. Become the experiencer and witness to your own emotional process. As the drama unfolds, step off the stage of your life and take a seat in the audience. Witness the scene you’re a part of in its entirety. At the same time feel your own moment to moment experience. Seek to understand the point of view of the other actor in the scene. Notice that you’re stuck in a negative cycle that you both create together; a cycle of hurt and reaction that you pass back and forth like a game of hot potato. Recognize this is our cycle that we’ve created together.
3. Reverse engineer your reactivity back to your own unmet need and vulnerable experience. This need is important enough to you that when it’s not met you experience vulnerability, even if you’re not conscious of it. When you witness yourself reacting, be open to the possibility that your partner’s behavior is simply a catalyst for you to get in touch with your own vulnerability. It’s ever present, even when it’s not explicitly felt.
4. Own it. You’re pissed off and you’re behaving like an asshole. You thought it was your partner, but now you realize it’s the pain you feel when you’re not feeling loved in the ways you long for. This sensitive spot inside you got rubbed against and you can’t continue to keep it unfelt and unseen. What’s worse, when you try to stop the pain and protect yourself by protesting or withdrawing, this rubs your partner’s sensitive spot, wounding them and causing them to react. Damn. Can you see how you’re contributing to your own pain and vulnerability being triggered?
5. Turn towards your partner. In this moment of hurt, you may worry they won’t be there for you in the ways you need, and you may even feel you don’t deserve to be met when you’re this vulnerable. It can feel terrifying (or even piss you off all over again). But what if you could feel your vulnerability fully and turn towards it where you would normally turn away? Could you share that moment of vulnerability with your partner? And ultimately, what if you could be a loving and supportive presence for your partner when they turn towards you with their own vulnerability? Wow. That, my friend, takes so much more courage than blaming, criticizing, withdrawing or shutting down.
That may sound complicated, but with a little guidance, it can be a simple process. Hey, if you can just surrender to the idea that your reactivity is borne from what already exists inside you and not “I’m mad because of my partner!!” that’s a giant leap forward.
Don’t be surprised if you still find it ridonkulously difficult while it’s happening. Once you stop hiding behind a lifetime of reactive strategies, it’s gonna feel uncomfortable. Just remember you’re moving towards love and connection with your partner.
Speaking of your partner, please know that it takes both of you to make things better. You can’t do all of this alone. As I tell my clients, when you both recognize you’re in a negative cycle that you create together (not my cycle and your cycle but OUR cycle), and that you fight because your connection is important to each other, you can move forward to a better relationship.
Let me leave you with the most common way I appear as an ass to my wife. Consider sharing your own assholic behavior in the comments below.
Sometimes when I feel alone and burdened, I react by being a blaming, criticizing, and disapproving ass to my wife. Sometimes it’s so subtle I don’t even realize I’m doing it. When my wife responds with (understandable) hurt and her own reactivity, I feel even more justified and turn up the volume on my assholic ways.
But you know what makes this blaming, criticizing and disapproving ass remotely tolerable to be with? I can see, in retrospect, that when I’m triggered I behave in ways that make me look like an ass. Also, I understand relatively quickly what I’m really reacting to. And it’s not a failure on my wife’s part to meet my needs. No. In fact, I’m reacting to the pain I feel when I feel alone in the world. That deep-down sense of aloneness that lives inside me is too painful for me to sit in sometimes, and it was there long before I met my wife.
It’s in these moments that I need my wife the most, that I long to be held within the embrace of our love and support for each other. How sad for me (and for both of us) that this is also when I’m most prone to act like an ass.
When I feel that loneliness creeping up inside me, I try to reach out to her from my vulnerability. I ask her not to give up on me, even if I act like an ass sometimes, because the truth is,”I need you, I really need you.”
Even an asshole like me can turn things around.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this please recommend it! It would mean a lot to me and it could help change the world one fellow ass at a time. :)
My great passion is helping others connect more deeply. Learn how for free. Subscribe here.
Fiachra (Figs) O’Sullivan is a certified emotionally focused couples counselor and the founder of Empathi, an online coaching program for couples. As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Figs provides in-person couples counseling in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset where he lives with his wife, daughter, son and doodle. If you’re curious about your own relationship, take Figs’ Relationship Quiz and get free, actionable and personalized guidance on how to feel more connected!