“Why are you looking at me like that?” Gerald snapped at his wife, Trish.
“I’m not looking at you any particular way,” she countered. “What’s really bothering you?”
“What’s really bothering me,” Gerald said slowly, “is that you are prickly and angry; and I don’t like it.”
“I wasn’t prickly until you began picking at me,” Trish retorted. “Now, I am mad. I don’t know what’s bothering you, but I sure don’t like your attitude.”
“Well, get used to it,” Gerald said, “because the way you treat me is how you will be treated.”
After watching this interaction in near disbelief and having not spent much time with Gerald and Trish, a couple having arrived at The Marriage Recovery Center the previous day, I decided it was time I stepped in.
“Folks,” I said, allowing my interruption send a signal to them.
“Yes,” they said simultaneously.
“Do you notice what you’re doing?” I asked.
Both looked quizzically at each other.
“Uh, not really,” Trish said. “I guess we’re arguing with each other. We do this all the time.”
“And do neither one of you stop the bickering?” I asked.
“Not until one of us blows up,” Gerald said smiling. “I don’t know that we think there is anything wrong with it.”
“That would explain why you both continue it and why neither of you has said, ‘We need to stop this!’ May I point out what I heard?” I asked. “I’d like your permission to speak into both of your lives.”
“Sure,” Trish said. “If we’re doing something wrong, I’m sure we both want to know it. We just can’t see what we’re doing. What do you see?”
What I saw with Gerald and Trish is a pattern I see in many couples. I call it stickiness. Like pitch or tar on your hands, everything you touch not only sticks to you, but becomes discolored in the process. If you have any sticky substance on your hands, whatever you touch sticks to you.
Notice the interaction between Gerald and Trish. As you listen in on their conversation, it is difficult to discern the real issue. It is impossible to discover the true infraction, the original point of concern. Very quickly, after one has become disgruntled, they become sticky with each other, easily exchanging barbs and provocative insults. No one talks about a specific issue, but both start attacking each other. One blow is met with another blow. One sarcastic barb met with another sarcastic barb. And what is truly amazing is that neither notices what is taking place. Unhealthy stickiness!
It would be one thing if this was an unusual behavior, taking place in only a handful of marriages. The truth is, many couples play out this unhealthy stickiness every day. One person feels wounded by an off-handed comment and “zam!”, out comes a nasty reaction. One reactive comment leads to another reactive comment. Two brainstems having a fight!
Somewhere, sometime, a frontal lobe (where we notice what is happening and make proactive choices) must step in. At least one person—ideally two—must develop the presence of mind to notice this stickiness and put a stop to it. Let’s consider some steps you can take to put some brakes on this destructive pattern.
1. You must agree to be watchful in your relating.
Recently, I’ve written about using your ‘third eye’ to watch how you relate. The process of becoming mindful of how you relate is not an easy habit to create, but oh so necessary. Simply begin by noticing your patterns. You’ll gain a lot of useful information.
2. Look inside.
Stickiness begins with feeling threatened in some way. It begins by feeling defensive, provoked or irritated. If we don’t pay attention to our inner feelings, we won’t notice how the cascading of feelings begins—feeling defensive, reacting defensively by attacking, possibly in like manner to how we have felt provoked.
3. Remind yourself that emotions are contagious.
We often end up feeling what our mate is feeling, their actions causing a counter-reaction in us. Likewise, our reaction causes a reaction in our mate, and so on. Each person, being sticky, is ready to react to the other, often in destructive ways.
4. Take responsibility for your stickiness.
Scripture tells us that we must be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) regardless of how our mate treats us. While it is tempting to respond ‘in kind’, that is not our calling and will not end the struggle. We are to keep our side of the street clean. We are to be a light to others, not an angry, irritated person.
5. Be the first to end the struggle.
It takes two to wrangle in a fight and we don’t have to show up to every fight to which we are invited. If we are mindful, asking God to heal that reactive, sticky place within, we will be peacemakers. We stir up others to peace by smiling, being kind, refusing to engage in a battle. We end the struggle by noticing what is going on, addressing the concern our mate is talking about—albeit in a destructive way.
Consider the stickiness in your marriage. Are you reactive, provocative or easily provoked? Determine, with God’s help, to end conflict and strife by using Teflon in key places of your relationship.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at email@example.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.