Why Do You Do the Things You Do?

That is what I ask myself when I screw up. (“Why the heck did I do that?”) And it is what I ask of you, my client friends, when you ruin your best chance to live an effective and gracious life. (“Tell me why you did that again?”) When I ask why you did something, I am probably thinking about a “trinity” of A’s.

A1 – My first “A” is “attention.” All of us need it, our souls would shrivel without it, and we are designed to give attention to others and absorb it for ourselves. Saying, “She just wants attention” is, of course, true. Take the dismissive tone away and you understand one of the great human motivators.

A2 is “affection”, that someone (hopefully, many “someones”) would want us, worry about our well being, look forward to our coming home for the evening, initiate a really great gladness, that kind of thing. It is why we marry and, when it is missing, the reason that many have their spirits broken and consequently break their relationships.

And A3 is “approval.” This is when someone catches you doing something right and commenting on it. It is the basis of self-esteem in children and surely adults as well. It is related to “thankfulness,” that spirited quality that finds the good in someone and notices it out loud. Shouting approval is good and whispering criticism is a good idea, too.

These 3 A’s are motivators for life and some of the reasons for being. It is why we do the things we do.

Imagine your life where you grew up being noticed and wanted and thanked. If you can imagine this, you can imagine health and wellbeing.

Imagine your life where you feel misplaced, where love has to be earned with good grades or perfection of another sort, and where your triumphs get lost in the busyness of stuff. If you can imagine this, you can imagine fatigue, depression, loneliness and giving up.

Conflicted Couples: Interrupting Yourself

I am a big believer in apologies. This is what happens after the conflict. “I am sorry. Please forgive me. It’s my fault. Can we talk about it?” is the apology that seems to make most sense to me. But apologies don’t interrupt the conflict – they follow it. And by then a lot of damage may have been done.

Here are some interruptions that I use in my counselling practice (and that I have learned from John Gottman and others). See if they make sense to you.

#1 – Start the conflict softly. Bring up the conflict tactfully, caringly and working towards a positive solution. Do it sitting down. Playing a full orchestra of emotions and doing an all-out attack means that both partners are likely to feel like losers.

#2 – Sooth yourself before, during and following the conflict. Turn your soul temperature down. Imagine yourself with your hand on the rheostat and be in charge of your inner heat.

#3 – Build bridges – lots of them (maybe 3!). Accept the point of view or intended goodness of your partner. Say something like, “That’s a good point you make.” This builds a pretty good bridge. And smiling warmly helps, too. Try building 3 bridges in a row and see what happens!

#4 – Direct your energy vector “up” once every 3 minutes. Say something warm, welcoming and winsome often. Something funny too, and occasionally concede a point. Touch kindly.

#5 – Time-outs for 15 or 20 minutes help. And during the time-out write down something truthful and thoughtful about you (not a time to make a case against your partner or be defensive). And when you re-engage say, “Thanks for the time out. I would like to tell you about me.” Then read your notes.

There is a lot more. You might want to check out some of my articles on conflict and especially an article entitled “Communication Covenant for Couples in Conflict.”

Conflicted Couples: Go Be Angry if You Want


“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the devil that kind of foothold in your life.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, The Message)


Do you know what? There is no need to mess with your partner. Bark, bitch and belittle if you think that works – but you don’t need to. In the flash of a trigger moment, in the blister of anger, it is a choice whether to go for a run or run over your partner.

I am confident that most anyone can interrupt their “fight or flight” reaction to what triggers them. Let me explain a bit. Anger is a second stage emotional response to the internal experience of hurt and fear. Anger doesn’t normally exist by itself – something has startled you or hurt you. Then you get mad and you stop thinking. Mix your rapidly accelerating anger with a flash memory of harm and you have a conflict concoction common to chronically conflicted couples. Here is the formula:

Hurt + Fear + History = Anger [→ Chronic Conflict]

The hurt or anticipated hurt is the trigger. Fear is the emotional lubricant, a kind of psychological WD-40. Add in a history of harm (in this or other intimate relationship) and the result is anger, explosive or malingering, vented or suppressed.

Note the bracket and arrow in the formula above – this is where it all changes. This emotional concoction is now pushing for a body response, a behaviour. This is usually thought of as fight or flight where the fear either accelerates the conflict or, possibly, accelerates the retreat. (We are not talking about the problems of a conflict-avoidant marriage in this blog.) If fighting is the everyday response to these troubling emotions, then it has become a pattern. It’s called revenge and it is fueled by anger. Sort of like the devil having a foothold in your life, and sort of like not interrupting yourself.

Next time some thoughts on interrupting yourself.

Conflicted Couples: “I’m a Dirty Fighter”

I am the dirty fighter in our marriage. Carole grew up with the idea that to go to bed angry was about as sinful as it gets, whereas I figured that going to sleep in the midst of shared madness was one way to solve it – pretend it never happened. Carole would then wake me up to talk it through and I would be more peeved than the hours before, but eventually she would lead me through it.

By the way, the problem we were gnarling about was never the problem. More often it had to do with who was going to control this relationship we were living. Like on the dance floor, Carole loves to lead and the problem with that is that I like to lead as well. We often lead in different directions, we usually have different rhythms and we both think we are right most of the time. And sometimes we are both right, and right at the same time.

I have learned from Carole over these 39 years. I am less of a dirty fighter now. And I have discovered that there are lots of reasons to “not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26) — here are some.

1. Fighting wrecks intimacy. Not much chance for closeness, no spooning, no whatever… and forget about love-making.

2. Un-conciliated conflict disturbs your dreaming and your resting. You wake up often more tired than when you closed your eyes. Rather than 8 hours of rest you get 8 hours of wrestlessness (I know how to spell restlessness).

3. You reduce your next day resiliency. Last night’s conflict becomes tomorrow’s frustration and bitterness. Watch your angst and how on-edge you are with others.

4. Nourishing your wrath takes huge withdrawals from your emotional bank account, that accumulation of goodness and freshness that you should be adding to your marital friendship.

5. You become habituated to thinking you are “right” while being aggressively resistant to your partner. It becomes your new norm. It’s called being “passive aggressive” in psych circles.

I seem to have lots of “high conflict couples” these days in my practice. Maybe you are one of them. So I am going to create a few blogs written for you. I hope that these “Comments from the Couch” give you occasion to think, laugh, maybe get confused and perhaps make some different decisions.

Thanks for reading.