Sometimes in your life with your partner it will happen that they say or do something that triggers upset feelings in you. If you then get caught up in your upset feelings and react by lashing out at your partner for what they have said or done, you will soon find yourself in a heated argument – a war of words, that benefits no one, regardless of who ‘wins’ the argument. The effect of all heated arguments is that your relationship loses; another little chip is cut off from the foundation of your love for one another.
Even if you don’t immediately react from your upset feelings, but choose to bring the matter up at a later time, you may find yourself in a spiral of accusations and counter-accusations, unless you approach the matter with a constructive strategy. The whole ‘trick’ is to make sure that you express yourself in a way that carries no accusation, blame or attack on your partner. That what you say is clearly a statement about you, not them. A very useful strategy for doing that is the Fact-Story-Feeling protocol.
Prepare to share your upset feelings
In order to assure the best possible outcome, when you want to bring up an issue of discontent with your partner, it is wise to first reflect on your own reactions to what they said/did; to reflect on your interpretations of their actions (your Story) and mindfully explore the upset feelings as they are felt in your body.
It is also wise to choose the right time to bring the issue up; when you are in a constructive frame of mind and when there is nothing else that is demanding your attention. You need to be clear that your intention is to make your relationship better, for both of you, not that you want to retaliate for something they have done.
Start with expressing to your partner that there is something that you need to talk about, and ask them to just hear you out with open mind and heart.
Describe the situation when your upset feelings happened – factually. What this means is that you describe only that which could be picked up by a “dead” device, like a microphone or a camera, and that you leave out all judgements, exaggerations and personal interpretations. The purpose of this step is simply to let your partner know what you are referring to, the situation in which your upset feelings occurred, yet doing so in such a way that there is nothing in what you are saying that they will disagree on.
For example, instead of saying “When you spent all evening chatting up that blonde girl at the party last night…” you say “When you were talking to that blonde girl…” Or, instead of saying “When you put me down in front to other people…” you say “When you tell people that I am ‘a bit funny’…”
It may seem like you are, either way, making your point clear. But if you express yourself in the first way in those examples, you will most likely find that your partner gets their shackles up, and that they start objecting that they didn’t “spend all night”, that they weren’t “chatting her up”, that they don’t “put you down.” And then the conversation has deteriorated before it hardly even started.
Facts are just that; observations that no one would have different opinion on. The rest comes next.
This is where you tell your partner what you read into what they said/did; your interpretation of their behaviour, what meaning you give to it, in other words your Story about what goes on for them when the say/do what they said/did.
The stories we make of people’s behaviour happen as if by themselves, and are based on everything we have experienced in life up until that moment. For example, when I was a teenager, if someone would have “given me the finger” I would have had no idea what it meant (I might have wondered if they were checking out where the wind was blowing from), since at that time that gesture had not yet reached Sweden from its origins in the US.
The interpreting mind is a story making machine, a subconscious translating apparatus that tells us what different behaviours mean, and hence we have no control over what stories bubble up in response to the behaviours we observe. It is wise, however, to recognise our stories for what they are; interpretations of people’s behaviour, and to understand that our interpretations may sometimes be wrong. Then we are more likely to express them as what they are, instead of confusing them with “objective truth.”
To continue the examples from above, you may in this step say “… I got the idea that you were chatting her up, and that you would rather be with her than with me…” Or “… what I make that mean is that you think I’m stupid and that you are ashamed of me…”
Notice here that you are actually not saying anything about your partner in this step. All you are doing is recounting the story that bubbled up for you. There is nothing for your partner to defend or object against. They may very well wonder how this story could come of what they said/did, but it is nevertheless not an accusation of them. It simply the story that presented itself to you, and most of the time you simply wouldn’t even know how it came about. Somehow your experiences in life have been absorbed into the interpreting mind in such a way that this was the result. That’s it. And this is a universal truth; everyone lives in their own personal story of the world, no one has access to an objective reality.
The Upset Feelings
As a result of your story, upset feelings started happening in you. Whether we are consciously aware of our stories or not, our upset feelings (or any other feelings for that matter) are always the result of how we perceive the situation that we are encountering. They are the body’s way of preparing to meet the situation that we perceive, and how the body responds feels a certain way. If we read a situation as threatening, the body response is one that feels like what we call “fear.” If we read a situation as friendly, the body response is one that feels like what we call “peaceful” or something similar to that.
In this step you put words to the upset feelings that are the result of your story. Yes, it is your story that determines the feeling, not partner’s actual behaviour as such. If your partner comes in with a cup of tea for you, when you are working at your desk, and your story is that they do this because they love you, you will perhaps feel “warm and fuzzy.” If, on the other hand, your story is that they do this because they have crashed your car, your feeling will be very different…
To continue with the two examples, in this step you may say “… and then I felt hurt and lonely.” Or “… and then I feel sad.” It is important that you are clear that you are expressing a feeling here, by using only feeling/emotion words. If you say something like “… and then I feel as if you…” or “ … and then I feel like you…” you are actually still in the Story step; you are telling your partner more about what you think is going on for them, rather than simply sharing how you feel.
When you are simply stating your resulting upset feelings, there is again nothing for your partner to defend or argue against. You are only talking about you, about what you experienced.
The appropriate response
If your partner is familiar with the Fact-Story-Feeling model, and you have managed to stick to it this far, they will have listened to what you have told them, with the understanding that you have all the while been telling them about you, about the facts that are yours as well as everyone else’s (as facts are), about the story that is yours, and about the upset feelings that are yours.
Now they would be wise to check with you that they have heard you correctly, by repeating back to you what you just told them – if they got something wrong, gently correct them. Once you know that they have heard you, they can “try your shoes on”, i.e. they can imagine what it would be like to be someone who, when faced with these particular facts, have this particular story coming up, and then experience just the upset feelings that you experienced.
If they manage to do this non-defensively (which should be quite easy, if they recognise that this is your subjective experience that you have told them about, not some kind of objective truth), they will at this point be able to say to you “I understand what that was like for you.” By saying this, they are not saying “yes, that’s how it would be for me too, “ or “yes, you are right, that’s exactly what took place,” or “yes, that is how anyone would have felt.” All they are saying is that they understand that this is how it occurred to you, that this is what you experienced. They are simply validating your experience.
The importance of validation cannot be overestimated. Once we are validated, once we have the sense that someone gets us, we tend to immediately relax and open up. And then, if your partner wants to share with you what took place from their own perspective, you are much more likely to be able to take that on board, without rejecting it as defensiveness. Of course, it is possible that what you experienced was also what took place from their perspective, and that your partner can be honest enough to admit to this. Then all that may be needed is that they say they are sorry, and that you have a conversation about how you can do things differently in future similar situations. You can read more about how to approach such conversations in this article: Creating relationship agreements with EASE.
If you want to share the article with friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, Twitter, or Google, click on the symbols at the top of the page – please, do, I’m sure they will like it if you did!
And of course, if you need assistance with dealing with upset feelings and making your relationship truly fulfilling, don’t hesitate contact me today!