The Death Glare
You know the look…the death glare. The expression that causes an instantaneous emotional and physical response. Your heart rate may quicken or that recurring headache might start flaring up. You may be thinking, “Is it something I did?” or you might know exactly why the laser sight is pointed at you. As your body goes into alert mode, you survey your options: Play dumb and act like you don’t notice? Ignore him/her? Confrontation? Or try to be understanding?
You don’t want to escalate the situation. You want to provide reassurance and comfort. But sometimes our automatic emotional response hijacks the opportunity. Whether due to fear, anger, or frustration, our emotional walls slam down as a defense mechanism. Yet this wall that protects us from experiencing hurt and pain also keeps our partner out. As a result, you both end up alone, helpless, and emotionally unavailable to each other.
Universal Emotional Needs
This is not a male or female thing. Men and women both want to feel loved and cared for by their partner. They want to feel that their partner has their back. While the methods of communication might be different, the underlying needs are the same. So what can you do in the moment that your fight or flight response kicks in?
Slowing Down Your Reaction
To start, be aware that a physical response is occurring the moment you become emotionally “triggered.” This response is your body telling you to pay attention—something important is happening. Take a breath. Focus and slow down. The psychologist Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
When you are feeling charged up or provoked, this can be challenging. But if we don’t take this moment, our emotions can suck us up into a whirlwind, leaving us feeling captive, stuck, and wondering “how did we get here?” If we make a conscious decision, we can stop the emotional whirlwind before it starts. Slowing down can help you stay engaged and in-tune with your partner. While this step may only take a moment, you are giving yourself time to regroup and most importantly, you are staying with your partner and not letting them go through their feelings alone.
As Janis Abrahms Spring said in her book, After the Affair: “To listen meaningfully, you need to see your partner not as the enemy but as someone who also may be hurting and whose message to you is not ‘You’re awful’ but ‘You matter to me. I need you to understand.'”
Listening to Your Partner
If you do this, you will have set the stage to better listen to your partner — oftentimes, this is all the other person needs. It’s common to use the time when your partner is talking to prepare your rebuttal or to think of a joke to lighten the mood. However, while at times those strategies may be beneficial, they also can avoid the issue or invalidate your partner’s feelings. In that moment, you have only one job: listen. It may be helpful to repeat back what your partner said in your own words, sincerely seeking additional clarification or knowledge. Asking your partner if you’re “getting it right” or focusing on underlying feelings like sadness (“you sound sad as you are talking”) can help you keep your focus where it should be.
You might be tempted to focus on content and want to come up with solutions, or talk about your own experiences with an issue. Although this often comes from a good place (e.g., wanting to make things better or not wanting to see your partner in pain), your partner first needs to feel understood before they’ll be able to take in any other information or helpful efforts.
Feeling understood by your partner is vital to a healthy and happy relationship. As you nurture this understanding you will experience the joy that comes from being able to support and be there for each other. And fewer death glares!