Relationships in Conflict: Action Against Depression

In recalling how couples I’ve encountered have dealt with conflict in their relationships, two moments come to mind. These were just glimpses, but they stand out as the extremes. They have inspired me to take early action against depression to prevent blaming my partner for my own internal pain.

Once during a visit to a Native American community in the Pacific Northwest, I went to see an elder couple at their home. What they said has faded from memory, but how they said it was completely enchanting. Their words flowed together as if the two of them were inside each other’s minds. Without a pause, they spoke in rhythmic alternation, picking up each other’s sentences, finishing thoughts in a way that seemed like sharing rather than interrupting.

Their voices perfectly complemented each other in tone and pitch – it was like listening to music, a beautiful duet. I could hardly imagine what they might have done to reach that harmony. No couple gets through decades together without their share of differences and conflict. I knew they were prominent in the ceremonial life of the community, and perhaps it was that spiritual dimension that had helped them achieve such harmony.

The other example was as different as night from day. I was driving a few blocks from our house on a beautiful New Mexico morning, with a clear view of the mountains on either side of the Rio Grande Valley. In stark contrast, I saw a young couple about a block away flailing in their own dark storm.

The man had just left their house, crossed the street to his car and looked back to see the woman following him out. She marched in one determined step after another right up to him and without a word punched him in the face. He immediately hit back just as hard, and the fight was on. They kept pounding at each other as I watched from a distance, horrified, immobilized. It seemed my car just kept going where it needed to go.

Most of us live somewhere between these extremes, hoping to work things out, but often not knowing what to do. My wife and I have found a couple of methods we keep coming back to. There’s one in particular we’ve learned to use effectively over and over again when I’m losing myself in depression.

One of the most common things I’ve done when depressed is to get intensely irritable and angry with everything and everyone. My wife takes the brunt of this. I’ll either snap in quick judgment about whatever she says or does. Or I won’t say a word and grunt and frown through the day, not even making eye contact. Of course, she’s hurt, angry, frustrated at this punishing behavior, often exploding in return, and then we’re into an increasingly bitter argument. After that, I’ll feel even more depressed about the relationship, and she’ll smolder in resentment while losing hope that I’ll ever change.

We’ve learned to short-circuit that vicious cycle – or at least try to – by naming as quickly as possible the trigger for the anger that I’m nurturing and refusing to talk about directly. There’s always something that sets it off. It could be an incident at work or something I feel I’ve failed at or a comment I’ve interpreted as a slight or attack. Whatever it might have been, I feel hurt or angry or afraid and shut the emotion down, refusing to talk about it. I can do that so well that I put the incident out of mind altogether. Then I get intensely irritable, often imagining that this is a legitimate response.

Whenever I manage to stop and try to think where the anger is coming from, I can usually trace it back to the triggering moment. Sometimes, I’ve been keenly aware of it all the time, but often I really have to think hard to bring it back, so effectively have I pushed it aside. If I can’t step back, my wife might be able to do it. Even if she’s yelling it out, she’ll hit the key point. What’s going on? What started you off? You have to tell me! I can’t take this!

If I can then not only remember but also say in so many words, here’s what happened, I feel an incredible relief. The free-roaming irritability and anger just vanish as I focus on what’s really bothering me, and my wife and I begin to talk about it. At once she becomes responsive and sympathetic. We may be exhausted from tension and fighting, but we’ve calmed down and begun to work on a specific problem.

It may seem like it’s only common sense to go after the cause in this way, but depressed behavior creates so much isolation for both partners over such a long time that every little breakthrough is all the more powerful. It’s the sum of small steps like this that make possible a much bigger change in a relationship damaged by years of emotional withdrawal and hostility.

Using even basic methods like this one takes a lot of practice. I find that many people underestimate this and quickly get frustrated when they try something a couple of times and can’t make it work. It’s almost impossible to interrupt intense emotions when you’re deep in battle with your partner unless you’ve internalized the steps you need to take.

Working with a therapist is one way. Trying out a method in the calmer setting of a session may seem like an artificial exercise, precisely because you and your partner are less driven by emotion. Although it’s nothing like the intensity of the real thing, every repetition helps build a new habit. And that’s what it must become, something you can recall, if only dimly, even when you’re hurt and angry and want to lash out.

This part of recovery is a long story, and there are many other self-interventions to describe. However, before any of them can work, something even more basic has to happen. You have to find enough emotional detachment in the heat of the moment to be able to take that critical step back from the brink.

Have you been able to take that step back and use some method to keep an argument from escalating? How have you been able to do that – or what has kept it from happening?