After a huge fight, David and Helen found they were unable to get past the resulting ugliness and negativity and made an appointment to see me. They were on the verge of breaking up after 11 years together.  The fight had begun over a minor argument about taking the car in to be serviced, and escalated into an airing of grievances stored up over the course of the relationship.

As they tried to explain what had happened, they quickly reverted to accusing each other of flirting, carelessness, laziness, selfishness. They summoned past history, both during the relationship and before. A number of times I had to redirect the conversation away from a discussion of minute details of who did what when.  Despite the animosity and litany of failures on each side, both wanted to find a way to go forward with the relationship.

To begin with, we discussed how dwelling on past misdemeanors and grievances does not help a relationship in difficulty.  No one likes to be criticized or told what they can or cannot do.  Trying to revive a relationship through regulation and blame does not work. It is far more constructive to look to the personal qualities that invite trust and commitment—to find the places of overlap that were initially so attractive and compelling.

Both David and Helen were very loyal.  Both were sensitive to the needs of others (despite the accusations of indifference) and both were kind.  They shared a great interest in several humanitarian causes. They shared a great love of the natural world.  And they were still physically attractive to one another.

We focused on their places of commonality and overlap: seeing and appreciating the qualities that were most appealing to the other.  This proved a far more productive approach than arguing over who was wrong to do what, when.  As they talked of the ways they respected and valued each other, the feeling between them became less adversarial.  Whenever they felt conflict, their task was to look to the other’s strengths to help them understand what was going on, rather than outlining the crime and the negative traits that could be deduced from it.

For example, David was a hard worker and had a strong sense of helping out.  When he and Helen were at a meeting or an event together, he would always assist in cleaning up afterwards.  Helen would fume, thinking that David was yet again flirting with available women, and not bothering to think about her needs. She would feel rejected, needy, jealous, and angry.

David, for his part, felt unjustly attacked and responded with anger and distance. This fed Helen’s anxiety and insecurity.  It was helpful for Helen to remember that David was admirable for not leaving all the work to others, a quality that included helping her with her projects when she was tired, or upset, or her energy was low.

This let her view the situation simply as David being David, helping out as he always did. She could join him with positive energy and appreciation, or see that it was okay for her to go home because she was tired—he’d be along soon enough.  David in turn was delighted to have Helen’s understanding and appreciation and he moved closer to her.

It takes discipline to look to the better character of someone you’re annoyed with.  It requires you to look at yourself too, when you’re in pain, because your feeling reaction is often of your own creation.

The outcome for the health and strength of their relationship is excellent. Each partner is learning to look beyond their immediate frustration and upset to the qualities they value most in the other.  A momentary squabble now seems relatively minor in comparison to the benefits. They’re more able to talk about issues and work them out.

Difficulties in any relationship often stem from one’s personal issues, triggers, and vulnerabilities. These are in place long before one meets the person who’s now being blamed.  It’s always difficult to steer clear of another’s internal landmines.  It is really your responsibility to understand your vulnerabilities and keep your inner awareness active in moments of stress and misunderstanding. Each partner needs to allow for those vulnerabilities in the other, to better understand how things have come unraveled and to gently probe for that awareness in the discussion of what is going wrong.

In an atmosphere of judgment and accusation, your partner is not likely to share inner vulnerabilities, which just perpetuates the misunderstandings and the hurt.  No one wants to be treated with contempt when they react badly due to old stresses and hurts.  Everyone wants understanding and compassion from a partner, a chance to explain what’s going on and why there is upset.

As Helen and David discussed difficult times in their relationship, and listened to the explanations and feelings around the other’s perspective, they acquired a broader understanding of how each reacted to things that did not seem contentious on the surface but tapped into old hurts and angers.  This awareness let them make more space for unwarranted reactions, and to navigate each other’s emotional reality more gently and compassionately. As their points of disagreement diminished, they became more actively loving and supportive of each other.