Okay, I get it: Connection rules. But it's hard to imagine most people being capable of reaching out to their partners in the heat of an argument. Love and Stosny acknowledge that it's a tall order. Still, they say, for couples to productively address the hurt that underlies anger, it helps to have a previously agreed-upon signal such as a hand gesture to keep disagreements from spiraling out of control. This doesn't mean they should try to ignore their feelings, but instead find a way to convey that the other person matters more than whatever they're resentful or anxious about—and then talk. The beautiful part, Love says, is that "it takes only one person to make the gesture. The partner will feel the impact, even if he or she can't drop the anger right at that moment."
Admittedly, this approach is most effective for couples in a precrisis state, Stosny says, "when there's still time for the man to step up to the plate and stop withdrawing or being reactive, and for the woman to understand that her husband really does want to make her happy and to stop being so critical. Men are better able to stay in the room and listen to women if they don't think they're being blamed for their distress."
But ultimately, Love adds, "couples have to decide that the relationship is more important than all those things they do that annoy each other."
"Even when Hugh throws his sopping wet towel on the bed, forgets to put gas in the car, or stares into space when I try to tell him something that really matters to me?" I ask, only half joking.
"If you give him positive reinforcement instead of criticizing him, he'll start doing more of the things you want him to do," Love says.
The next night over dinner, I give it a whirl. "I love it when you put gas in the car and hang up your wet towel," I say. He looks at me like I've gone off the deep end. "What's up?" he asks suspiciously. "Why are you being so nice?"
But a few days later when I'm distraught over a potentially scary mammogram report and he jumps in too quickly to reassure me that everything will turn out fine (it does), I decide to try out the binocular vision that Love and Stosny recommend. That's when I see that Hugh feels like a failure because he wants to make things better and he can't.
So instead of my usual knee-jerk irritability at what I perceive as his lack of sensitivity, I say, "I'm terrified and I just need you to listen." Which he does, patiently, lovingly. After I've finished reciting my laundry list of fears, he holds me close and neither of us says anything for a long time. We don't need to.
It's the connection, stupid!
Barbara Graham is at work on a memoir.