Crippling Instability in Relationship

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Ideally, we’d all be able to have disagreements with people while regulating our emotions. Most of us, at some point, though, blow our tops. We get our buttons pushed and lose it or shut down or walk away. The answer isn’t always to break up. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s not.


It’s useful to understand that, like most things, interactions happen on a continuum. We can yell and throw something one time during one argument in our lives, or it can be a pattern. We can make intentionally hurtful comments when we’re feeling backed against a corner, or it can be our go-to in trying to maintain control in any fight. One of these behaviors might start out as a rare occurrence and, over time, become a mainstay in the way we handle conflict.


We all feel triggered and angry. We all take out our issues out on other people. Often, the closer the bond, the more likely it is that a loved one will push our buttons and the higher the likelihood that we will argue. This fighting often separates us from the ones with whom we share our deepest bonds.


So, how can we manage our fighting and use our arguments as insight?        


Make a Plan:

Having a solid, clear agreement between you and your partner about how to manage escalating anger is crucial for protecting both of you from hurting each other and for protecting any children in the household from witnessing these arguments.


A necessary part of this plan is to open the space for a timeout. Identify when you’re feeling emotionally reactive/triggered and take space from the issue. Agree on another time to come back together to discuss it when you can better manage your emotions. Sometimes couples can’t get results this way or can’t stick to the plan. If this sounds like you, please consult a therapist.


Be Aware:

It’s easy to identify the subject matter of many of our fights. A skillful tool is to notice the process of fighting, themes, times, triggers, the way we resolve our fights.


Do the fights happen on the weekends? Long car rides? Are they often precipitated by a disagreement about finances or parenting? Are they resolved when someone shuts down or explicitly threatens to leave?


Paying close attention to our own experience of our fights, specifically when we’re in a neutral or calm state, provides us with substantive clarity. Learning about our partner’s triggers and fighting processes is also useful. We can apply the insights we’ve gathered to new, more beneficial behaviors.


It Is Not Weird to Ask for Help:

A lot of people go to therapy- your boss, your no-nonsense sister-in-law who often makes jokes about therapy, your fitness trainer, your coach, the Caltrans worker on Market and 5th. Managing relationships specific to our cultures and upbringing is not inborn. We were taught whatever our families learned and believed, not necessarily what works. (You can’t be what you can’t see.) Luckily, we can learn new information and gain the freedom to choose.


It is important to acknowledge that people are complex. Someone can be supportive, loving, calm, smart, independent and also, angry, jealous, controlling, suspicious, and demanding. We might remind ourselves that the qualities we love and the qualities we find challenging exist within the same person. We’ve heard ourselves say things like, “Overall, he’s really great. This is the best relationship I’ve ever had. Once he stops being so depressed, he’ll be able to get his life together. I’ll stop feeling so resentful, and we won’t fight as much.”


Or “We really do love each other. She’s basically perfect for me. She just has to learn to stop setting off my anger. Then things will be so much better.” There is both truth and false hope in statements like these. The solution isn’t always to walk away, but it isn’t just to stay and fight either. It’s more intricate than that.


How can we navigate this complex middle space? 


1) Assess what is working in the relationship and what is not.

2) Be honest with ourselves about our responsibility in the relationship.

3) Be honest with ourselves about what is not our responsibility in the relationship.

4) Understand what our commitment to our relationship means and what we want it to look like.

5) Commit to actions that are in alignment with how we want to manage our responsibilities.


Remember that for a couples’ relationship to be healthy, thriving, and fully functional; there need to be two emotionally healthy adults. One partner can do all the work in the world, learn great communication tools, heal their old wounds, and change their part of the dynamic, but if the other partner stays stuck, the dynamic will stay stunted.


Commitment is always an unknown, but the more we know and trust ourselves, the more we can accept these unknowns.


Love and Be Loved,



I am a licensed mental-health professional located downtown at 870 Market St. San Francisco, CA 94102.

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