Knowing Better Doesn’t Always Mean Doing Better
My article on verbal aikido couldn’t save me from an avoidable argument
A few months ago, I wrote a well-received article about using verbal aikido to avoid stupid arguments. Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art that uses the principles of nonresistance to neutralize an opponent. The philosophy can be applied to resolving differences of opinion without being aggressive or defensive.
Too bad I wasn’t able to apply it when I got into a meltdown with my wife recently.
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But I was reminded that, as relationships mature and move through the romantic phase into real life, debris from the past will come up at unexpected times. To have an authentic, loving, and conscious relationship, you’ve got to face your own stuff and be ready and willing to work through it all with your partner.
If you don’t, you’ll get stuck in a big power struggle, arguing about the most ridiculous things while your relationship stalls out.
A few weeks ago, I felt great when I woke up on a Monday morning, the sun rising on a beautiful December day in Scotland. I got up, meditated, brought my wife, MC, a cup of coffee in bed, and then cracked on with a writing project. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be feeling so wonderful a few hours later. The day would be an emotional disaster.
We headed out to lunch in nearby St. Andrews, a small romantic village, and as we were finishing, we began a conversation about where a new sign with our house number would go. MC told me where the sign would be going, saying we’d already discussed it and agreed to its location.
I countered with, “Look, it’s going to go where we both agree. I don’t remember any prior conversation, and don’t just try to impose your will without involving me.”
At the time, I didn’t fully realize how much gasoline I’d poured on the fire. But it became painfully clear when we got outside. The usually lighthearted MC was stone-faced. I knew there was trouble. She let me have it, and I didn’t like it.
Looking back, I reacted defensively. In a split-second, I went from being calm and relaxed to calling up my inner armed militia. It was as if someone told me they were going to take my child away. The hell you are! She hit one of my childhood triggers: resistance to authority. From the very moment she spoke, I lit up. She’s not going to tell me what to do!
My quote, “It only takes one conscious person to end an argument,” was irrelevant. No conscious people sat at our table. Emotion flooded me as if I’d stuck my head in a giant pot of adrenaline and inhaled. MC was no better either.
I wanted to defend, attack, and be right. Verbal aikido? No way, baby. I wanted her to back down, apologize, and say, “Yes, you’re right. We will surely do this collaboratively.”
We were hooked, and nobody was backing down.
We argued on the sidewalk. We argued in the car on the way home. Then there were peace talks before all hell broke loose again. After one last try at reconciliation, I realized she needed time alone, and so did I, so we took a break.
A few hours later, we quietly ate dinner together and then went to the living room. I sat there for a while, reflecting on the day. I got triggered, and I need to own it. Triggers are emotional wounds, reminders of past trauma. The stimulus can be something unrelated to the original cause of the trauma, like being told where a sign ought to go.
Once I was flooded with emotion, I lost any ability to be rational. I didn’t see the opportunity to use verbal aikido. For hours, caught in self-righteousness, I couldn’t even acknowledge or admit that I’d overreacted.
I told MC what I was thinking, and we talked about my resistance to authority, her annoyance with my lack of memory, and how we both could have handled things differently. I could feel the heaviness and disconnection dissolve, and the air finally cleared.
Verbal aikido would have undoubtedly helped if I hadn’t gotten upset. When she pushed against me, I could have said, “Okay, I don’t remember the conversation about the sign, and I see you have some strong feelings about it. I know your memory is better than mine, so I trust we agreed where it would go. Let’s take a look at it when we get home to confirm it all. I’m sure we can easily sort it out.”
Before going to sleep later that night, we laughed at our humanness and our inability to catch ourselves before going off the rails. All that about a house sign? Talk about a stupid argument.
Or was it?
On the surface, this argument was clearly about power. However, underneath the surface, a committed relationship’s real purpose was at work.
Couples therapist and creator of the Imago relationship theory Harville Hendricks, says, “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship… and we must heal in relationship.”
According to Hendricks, when we fall in love with someone, we’re picking the ideal person to help us work through wounds from childhood. We’re attracted to someone who is a reasonable facsimile of the person or persons who wounded us as a child. I married a strong woman, and ever since we met, stuff has come up from down below for both of us. It has always shown up at unexpected times and has been messy, challenging, illuminating, and very confronting.
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If both parties aren’t committed to real personal growth and learning, it’s easy to get stuck in a relationship's power struggle phase. Hendricks says all relationships go through three predictable stages: romantic love, power struggle, and conscious connection.
Romantic love usually lasts three to six months but can last longer depending on circumstances. The purpose of this phase is for two people, essentially incompatible, to make an intimate connection so they can help each other heal and grow. When the love drugs oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin wear off, we start to notice the negative things about our partner we hadn’t noticed before.
Sometimes we become scared as we awaken to the reality our partner isn’t exactly who we thought they were. When you hear statements like, “Don’t treat me like a child,”or “You sound like my mother,” you have successfully reached the end of the romantic love phase.
Many relationships end right here. Disillusioned when the hot romance begins to cool off, some people want the intoxication of a new relationship. So they move on quickly, bringing all their unresolved stuff with them.
Real growth can’t occur when you’re knee-deep in the romantic love phase of a relationship. When you enter the power struggle phase, your partner's negative qualities can become magnified. We may start to wonder, What the hell am I doing with this person? The qualities that initially attracted us are suddenly annoying and frustrating. We feel like we are walking through a minefield, stepping on things we didn’t know were there and dealing with the explosions.
The land mines, which need to be located and dealt with, are unmet needs. If they aren’t, relationships begin to stall. There are three different responses. First, people start to lead separate lives, avoiding anything confrontational, adopting a “live and let live” philosophy. There’s no apparent conflict, and there’s little or no real connection. The emphasis is on daily living and avoiding conflict at all costs.
The next response is endless cycles of fighting and reconciliation. Relationships like this can be intense, with either party or both unconsciously picking fights as a way of reconnecting. Temporary closeness may occur, and great sex, but it doesn’t last, and the cycle repeats itself.
The third response is to end the relationship. Usually, one partner reaches a point where they can’t tolerate the fighting, tension, low-level conflict, or emotional distance. Often there is a great deal of defensiveness due to old wounds not dealt with, which surface throughout the relationship. This defensiveness manifests in acrimonious divorces where the fighting continues.
People in a relationship need to create safety for each other, be willing to do deep personal work, and drop defensive routines to get past the power struggle. Imago therapist Jay Fibus says, “We create what we defend against; defensiveness always creates more defensiveness unless the other party has the consciousness to stop the attack.”
When both parties understand that the higher purpose of being together is to heal and grow, they form a conscious connection. They know old wounds will surface and are willing to support each other through the inevitable ups and downs. Each person is committed to self-improvement, seeks to be the best version of themselves, and is willing to confront and deal with their darkness.
A journey like this isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter what phase you are in — it takes courage and hard work to have a conscious connection.
While I’m not particularly proud of how I handled this recent argument, I am grateful to be in a loving relationship with someone who understands how old wounds play out and who is willing to work together to identify and make peace with our respective demons. My inner work continues: Be more aware of my dark side and pay better attention when I become agitated.
You can feel bad about arguing with your partner, but if you want an honest and conscious connection, psychic fragments are going to show up out of nowhere sometimes. You have to face them, deal with the mess, and receive what you need to learn.
Ultimately, what matters is that you walk the path together, finding your way as best you can through the mysteries of life.