Rick didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Well, I told you, after she said the bit about me never being around for anything important, I threw my glass into the sink and smashed it, stormed out of the room, and slammed the door. I’m ashamed of that now, and I can see that maybe that was not helpful. She just made me so mad!”
“Uh-huh, I got that,” replied John. “But my question was where you went wrong.”
Now the young attorney was a bit fazed. “What do you mean? I lost it when I slammed the glass. Isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, yes, you were out of control then, sure. But how did you get there?” Seeing Rick’s continued puzzlement, the counselor pressed further. “What were you saying or doing before that?”
“Well, I was telling her about all the pressure I am under at work, and asking her to cut me some freakin’ slack with the kids.” Rick’s verbal pace quickened and his voice tensed even as he recounted the discussion. John sat silently, understandingly, yet still probingly, letting the tone of Rick’s words hang in the air. “OK, so was that where I began to lose control?” Rick finally queried.
“Were you raising your voice?” Rick nodded. “Were you standing up or sitting down?”
“Standing,” replied Rick. “But she was across the kitchen.”
“What were you saying before that?”
“Good grief,” thought Rick. “What is this, a cross-examination? I’m the freakin’ lawyer here!”
* * * * * *
In a discussion of importance with a loved one—or an opposing counsel, for that matter—have you ever lost your temper and uttered words that you later regretted? Have you allowed a simple disagreement to turn personal, ugly, juvenile? Have you ever had to go back and apologize for talking foolishly and hurting your partner’s feelings? Perhaps, like many of us, you can maintain your cool for quite a while, but eventually something said hits a nerve and you explode in a tirade of ad hominem attacks.
Most of us, on some level, are aware that is possible to lose control of our emotions, and that anger can become destructive. What we may not realize is how we let ourselves get into an emotional state that dramatically increases the likelihood of a cruel or violent outburst. Our efforts to “maintain self-control” frequently fail because we wait far too late into the discussion to employ them—or even realize that they are needed. It’s a bit like the classic scene from old-timey movies in which a passenger senses danger and grabs the overhead hand-brake to stop a speeding train--except in this instance the train has already jumped the tracks and careened off the cliff!
The point of the vignette above is that when we become argumentative with a loved one, we risk setting in motion a chain of events that takes on a life of its own—both internally and externally. Rick wants to stop the angry outbursts that leave him ashamed, and his wife hurt and afraid, but unless he learns to keep the train from getting up a head of steam in the wrong direction, it will keep following the same path with similar results.
Why do we tend to operate this way? Part of the answer is that we are physical beings. Our emotions are not some esoteric, ethereal essence floating out in space; nor are they reflected solely in our facial expressions or body language. Rather, our bodies react physically to what our minds are experiencing, hearing, and communicating. Perhaps you can recall the accelerated heart-rate you experienced the first time a judge took stern issue with your courtroom presentation, or that you presented a research memo to the most menacing partner in your firm. The autonomic nervous system is wired to know when any part of the person is in danger. Once the biological “fight or flight” response has reached a critical mass, it is often difficult for the rational mind to regain control until the adrenalin secreted in the stress response has subsided.
Moreover, when we experience hurt or mistreatment, the urge to strike back is strong. This is both a psychological and a biological reality. The sting of an insult or criticism received dissipates if we can turn the tables and inflict harm on our tormentor. That snarky retort truly makes us feel better, for the moment at least. Unfortunately, as two people continue this escalating process, the blows hit lower, the cuts go deeper, and often the original subject of disagreement is obscured or lost altogether.
The way we lawyers work and regularly communicate makes us especially susceptible to setting this process in motion. Litigation, in particular, is all about point-counterpoint, allegation and response, query and objection. We would not be doing our jobs were we not to advocate zealously for our clients’ positions.
In our intimate relationships, though, we have to be careful not to switch into this mode of communication. The first reason is that it is beneficial to maintain composure in how we treat our loved ones—both for our own and the other person’s sakes. When we keep our tongues in check, we maintain our credibility in the relationship, probably sustain fewer retaliatory wounds ourselves, and have less relational damage to repair in the aftermath. Plus, we may even stand a better chance of being heard and understood by the other person. But the first key to controlling the conversation-stopping, partner-harming behavior lies in not boarding the argument train in the first place—or getting off it as soon as we realize what is happening.
As we’ll soon see, when communicating with our significant others, the choices that we make all along the way are important. But perhaps one of the most crucial choices needs to be made early on in a conversation of significance—and better yet, even before it begins. If we do not make the fundamental commitment to maintaining a respectful tone of voice and manner of speech early on, while we will have the ability and self-awareness to do so, there may likely come a point in the conversation that such a choice becomes highly unlikely, if not impossible.
So, the next time you find yourself in a heated disagreement, pay attention to your body. What is happening to your heart rate, the muscles in your back, the tone of your voice, the relative posture between the two of you? Notice at what point you begin talking more than listening, defending more than seeking to understand. At what point are you driving the train, and at what point are you at its mercy? Identify anything you said that you wish you could “take back,” and then consider at what earlier points you could have pulled the brake handle and had it make a difference. And, if you are truly interested in turning around behavior patterns of this sort (and really brave!), sometime after the conflict at issue has fully settled down, ask your spouse where he or she could tell that continuing the conversation with you began to feel hopeless, futile, or too hurtful to withstand.
I would be interested to hear any reader’s thoughts and experiences as you consider these thoughts and concepts in light of your own relationship. I think there is significant power in hearing the stories of other lawyers who face similar challenges.