Having the same fight over and over again? Learn how identifying your emotional patterns can help you build a better relationship.
If you've ever wondered why arguments with your mate seem like déjà vu all over again, it's probably because you're having the same tiff for the umpteenth time, says Tara Bennett-Goleman. And you might not even know what you're fighting about because the real conflict has its roots in your childhood. "The emotional patterns you learn as a child reverberate throughout your life," she explains over tea at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. "That's such a common frustration."
Sitting next to Tara in one of the famed hotel's club chairs—in fact, leaning into her every word—is Daniel Goleman, her husband of more than 20 years, who rose to fame with his book Emotional Intelligence. Tara's first book, Emotional Alchemy, is a culmination of 15 years of work helping her therapy patients become aware of the negative emotional patterns—schemas—that drive their lives. Consider this couple's résumés, full of honors for their work in psychology, or just look at their body language—the way they turn toward each other like plants toward light—and you wonder what they know about marital discord. Tara, with her long, dark hair, flowing clothes, and brilliant eyes, seems delighted by her husband's rapt attention, while he—compact, intent, disarmingly enthusiastic, a gray-haired man with a young man's mien—looks as if he can't quite fathom his good fortune.
So do these two psychology Jedis ever get peeved—or worse, have a nasty spat—themselves?
"When we were first married, we had a lot of fights. Big fights," Daniel insists. "And we don't fight much anymore. I think it's because of the schema work we've been doing."
"It has completely changed things," Tara says. "Once you understand your emotional patterns, you take things much less personally. You start to see the whole thing as fascinating."
"One schema I tend to have is being a perfectionist, so I work much harder and longer than I need to," Daniel says. "And the schema Tara has is abandonment. So I'm in my office working that extra hour, two hours—really longer than I need to. And what she sees is not that I'm working, she sees the closed office door—we both work at home—so she's feeling abandoned. The repetitive argument was that I'd work a long day, and then we'd have a fight. I'd be thinking, 'Gee, she doesn't support me in my work. She's so unsupportive.' And she'd be thinking, 'He's so uncaring and unavailable.' Once we started to see the schemas, one or the other of us would be able to cool down and maybe say, 'You know, we should take a time-out.' And then after we both cooled down, we could talk about what was going on. And that has been extraordinarily useful in our relationship."
"Once you find a way to identify your patterns, you start to deconstruct your fights," Tara says. "What are the issues?"
"The real issues," Daniel says.
"You start to be much more understanding, not only of your partner but of yourself," Tara says. "The habits we bring to a relationship come from our past experiences and disappointments. We're trying to get those needs met in our current relationship, so we place a lot of expectations on our partner. In a way, too many."
To complicate matters, we may be unwittingly attracted to partners who trigger our schemas—something you might see when opposites attract. And dormant schemas can rear their heads during times of transition or stress, such as when a couple moves into a new home or has a first child.
The antidote, says Tara, is mindfulness, which involves being aware of our emotions without being ruled by them. "Mindfulness cultivates a sense of equanimity as we experience emotional states. We recognize the emotion just as it is—without resistance or judgment," she says. "When we can recognize our emotions clearly and openly, we can be more flexible in our responses."
Humor helps, says Tara, who compares her emotional detective work to playing a Where's Waldo? game, trying to find the hidden critter in a Byzantine picture. "When Dan and I were talking about repetitive patterns, he remembered that when he was about 4, he was playing house with a girl across the street. She was the stay-at-home person, and he would go out..."
"This was the 1950s," he quickly interjects.
"He would go into the office and work. He was only 4 years old and he didn't understand the concept for work, so he would just go into a corner and say, 'Work, work, work.' Then I started to use that when he was in his office poring over papers. I'd just playfully say, 'Work, work, work.'"
And it did work, Daniel says: "I actually changed the hours I spent behind closed doors."
"He realized he was missing spending time with me," she says.
"I was getting gypped," he says. "I was a workaholic."
Well, he's been on the go since four this morning; he flew in from a workshop in Virginia, and they leave for California tomorrow morning. Still, in all, a win-win situation from the looks of it. Apparently, the hours and shorter and the understanding greater.
But what if you're married to a man who would rather watch talking heads on CNN or jiggling bods on Baywatch or, heck, have needles thrust under his Cheeto-encrusted fingernails than excavate feelings with you?
"You're not stuck," Tara says, "because you can change yourself. You can be mindful for him. If you can do a schema profile of your partner, you can start to understand him in a deeper way. You can make little adjustments. If he doesn't feel cared for, you can do caring things—really pay attention or listen. If someone feels easily controlled, you can be careful with the language you use. Rather than use a directive, you can suggest things..."
"If you say, 'Let's see that movie,' it's like you're controlling them," Daniel says.
"If you understand the schema, you can make changes that counter it, and you can build trust in the relationship, and compassion and sensitivity," Tara says. "A relationship is a system. There's a causal relationship. When one partner makes a change, it affects the other partner.
"There are so many ways to break an emotional habit," she adds. "You can apply changes to the behavioral realm, to thinking, to feeling. I mean, if you really think about it," she says as her husband gazes at her, "it's kind of amazing."