Some people are happily married. As of two years ago today, I’m ecstatically married. Ninety-nine of the time, spending my life with my partner is hilarious and delightful and fulfilling.
As I type this, he started singing a sea chanty at me out of nowhere. See what I mean? [Husband note: I Saw Three Ships is a Christmas song, not a sea chanty] Yes, I let him read over this and leave notes. Checks and balances.
As wonderful as that 99% of the time is, that last 1% can be just about as painful. There’s something about being “all in” with someone that makes fighting with them hit your deepest insecurities, right?
Early on in our relationship, we had a conflict that took us months to fully resolve. It activated the “fixer” part of me, so I tried everything: individual therapy, couples therapy, and reading everything I could find about healthy conflict resolution, including a 400 page book by famed couples therapist John Gottman. One of the things I read somewhere haunted me: the idea that couples therapy works by helping couples talk more constructively, but they almost never keep it up outside the therapist’s office.
We saw that in our relationship. We did finally have a healthy, healing conversation that put our long-running conflict to bed, and our conflicts became less frequent and shorter-lived. But when they popped up, I’d try to whip out the formula that had worked for us the previous time, thinking if we just talked about the conflict in this way, we could avoid escalating it and go straight to understanding each other better.
But it just didn’t happen that way. We’d go right back to square one, having one or two or three painful and unhelpful attempts at discussing the issue. And then, as if by magic, the next attempt would work beautifully. It felt totally unpredictable, totally out of my control.
Then we got into parts work. First, we noticed that saying “a part of me feels” takes the sting out of things. It makes a big difference to hear “a part of me resents you for this, but most of me doesn’t.”
But that kind of trick is like so many of the things we’d learned before, that help some of the time but can’t be relied upon when you’re caught up in your deepest fears. The kind of thing that loses its power when you mechanically say “I mean A PART OF ME” just because it’s a rule.
The real turning point came later, after we’d each gotten to know our own parts through our individual work. I saw it all come together one day when he told me that he was bothered by something I’d said a few days before.
I remembered saying it. I remembered exactly how angry I was when I said it. And then an interesting thing happened. I recalled that for days before I said it, I had been saying something very different to myself, almost the opposite of what I’d been thinking in that angry moment. Seeing these two opposing thoughts in my own head made me realize that those thoughts were coming from two opposed parts of me.
Deep down, I was afraid of asking for too much, so a part of me had spent all week congratulating me on not needing much while he was out of town. Then when I finally did want something, another part of me got angry at the slightest impression that he might be telling me I was asking for too much.
It’s really common to find parts of you in opposed pairs like this; they’re just using different strategies to protect some vulnerable spot, like my fear of asking for too much. One part tries to stop the spot from getting poked in the first place (“Needs are bad, good thing I don’t have them!”), and the other part defends you when it does get poked (“How dare you judge my needs!”). [Husband note: How dare indeed!]
So instead of arguing about the “right” amount to need or whether he really did judge me, I told him the story of what had been going on for me internally. I apologized, not for being angry or having that vulnerable spot, not for being “too sensitive” or “overreacting,” but for speaking to him from my angry part instead of about my angry part. Angry parts are helpful signals, but they’re not the best communicators.
His frustration dissipated, and he empathized with me. And then, he helped me work with those parts. [Husband note: This felt very reassuring and relaxing.]
It would be enough of a success story if we had just avoided a fight, but it went beyond that. Maybe a decade ago, I’d told a therapist about a song that used to make me cry as a little kid, and how I never knew why it had that effect on me. I didn’t figure it out with that therapist, but in the parts work that followed our non-fight, I finally got some insight into how my fear of asking for too much could get poked even by listening to that song. [Husband note: Who would buy a child a mocking bird and when it disappoints jump to a diamond ring?]
I wondered if this conversation was just a stroke of good luck. Would we be able to keep turning towards our parts instead of getting stuck in conflict? I’m sure we’ll have hard times again in the many [MANY!] years we plan to spend together, but so far we’ve kept it up, without the need for me to break out a list of rules and try to enforce them on our conflict conversations.
That’s been the real lesson of parts work for me – that an honest look at our feelings leads to better solutions than carefully constructed rules or logical analysis of morality. There’s no logical answer to questions like “what’s the right way to feel about this situation” or “how should a couple act when one of them is traveling,” and yet we can navigate these (and other) questions very effectively when we learn how to look deeply inside ourselves.
My husband has offered to write about how parts work has impacted his side of our relationship sometime, so make sure to subscribe to catch that when it comes out. For now, we’re off to celebrate our second anniversary! [Wooo!!!]