Managing The Charge: Something

Every Couple Should Know About

Mark Bakal, Psy.D. ext. 314

The statistics say that more than half of all marriages end in divorce.  There are a number of reasons for this, but certainly one reason could be that nobody teaches us how to be a successful couple.  That’s why it is critical that couples know one of the most important issues that can help them to beat the odds of divorce, be happy, and stay together: managing the “charge”.


If the conversation is “charged”, treat it like it is an emotional mine field.

Often times, the things we fight about are somewhat inconsequential. We might fight about something like who does the chores, what time we leave for a party, how we talk about money, or who left the toothpaste cap off of the toothpaste. While objectively these issues may seem quite silly, they don’t feel silly in the moment.  If one partner feels a certain “charge” or surge of energy about the issue, an immediate conversation about that issue is not usually a good idea.  In situations where one feels this “charge”, the other partner is likely to feel attacked or defensive in response to the surge.


Like the saying “opposites attract”, we tend to pick partners who are different than us so they are not likely to be charged about the same issues that we are.  For example, if one partner gets upset or charged about an issue related to planning, their partner is likely to be more spontaneous.  Thus, they may initially object to the tone of the issue and eventually have a big problem with the actual content;  “Why do you have to make such a big deal over what we are doing next week? Can’t you just live a little in the moment?”  Of course, this response will likely be taken as demeaning or offensive.  So now we are engaged in a power struggle.  Typically, each partner feels they are right in this struggle and they may each seem to have a pretty good case.


What should a couple do when they identify the “charge”?

Once you know one partner is charged, there are three things that you as a couple should attempt to do. Every couple should have three rules:

1)   Have a standard rule about taking a break from a conversation when it is charged.

2)   Be curious about why the issue is so important to you.

3) Return to your partner in a humble and honest manner, taking full responsibility for your part of the conflict.

Rule #1 Have a standard about taking a break

First, the couple must have an agreement that if things aren’t going well they should table it for another time. Most conversations that start with the charged intensity don’t turn around very easily. They tend to escalate into a power struggle that doesn‘t end well. For example, imagine your partner yelling at you for being late, “You are always late! This is so inconsiderate and you only think about yourself!”  How often would you respond by saying “Thank you for the feedback. I need to look at this issue”? Probably, not very often. It is more likely that you might respond with something defensive that escalates the issue like, “Why do you always have to be so controlling?”  Therefore, you must take a break to cool down and see things in a different way. 

There is usually one partner who tends to pursue during conflict and one who tends to need space. Therefore, the partner who pursues will likely want to finish the conflict “right now” and the partner who withdraws will want to have “space” rather than always fight. Thus, it is vital to agree to a general time frame for returning to the conversation for example, “We will come back to it within 24 hours”.  If there is a standard, the pursuer will feels less anxious because they know their issue will be addressed and the partner who tends to withdraw will feel less anxious because they know they will get their space. 


Rule #2 Be curious about why the issue pushes your buttons

Once both partners have calmed down, it is important to explore and be curious about “what makes this issue so important to me that maybe isn’t just about my partner?” Once we understand why the issue is so big to us, we can return to our partner in a different way.  We must explore what our concern or fear was related to the issue. When something is so charged, there is usually something we are afraid about underneath the intensity. For example, we may feel very strongly about being on time and it may seem like our partner just doesn’t ever care about “being respectful” of this issue. However, if we are really honest with ourselves and curious about the issue, we may see that there is something about being late that really bothers us. It is likely to have more depth than just being “right” about being “respectful of other people’s time.”  It may be that we are afraid of feeling humiliated by being late or that it makes us feel as if we did something wrong. These issues aren’t usually logical on the surface, but may have some history to them. It could be that you have always valued being on time, because it was a way you controlled one thing about how things may go in your life. Even if you aren’t’ able to identify why the issue is so important to you, it’s okay.  Being curious is enough.


Rule #3 Re-engage your partner in a humble manner

The third part of coping with the charge is taking responsibility for your part of the problem.   Couples that do well in relationships over the long haul learn that being ”right” doesn’t work. Once we have taken ownership of our part of the conversation or problem, it is much easier to return to the conflict issue in a manner that is not likely to make our partners feel attacked or defensive. We may say something like, “Now I know why I was so upset. It really was mostly about me and my fear of being late and looking foolish.  I do like to be on time, but it certainly isn’t as life or death as I tend to make it seem.”  This approach is likely to get a much better response from your partner.  Even if we don’t know what the issue was really about, a softer approach that owns your part of the conflict is likely to go well.  It may sound something like this: “I would like to talk to you about what happened and I really don’t like the way I handled it.  There is something for me about being late that is very difficult and I believe it has been an issue of mine for some time. I am really trying to understand this issue. In the meantime, I will work on how I present these concerns to you.”  When presented in this manner, and as long as you are being honest and genuine about the issue, your partner is likely to respond quite well.

In conclusion, we need to remember that if it is a “charged” issue, WATCH OUT.  Treat it like you are in an emotional mine field. You must be willing to stop the onslaught, be curious about your part of the concern, and take responsibility inside yourself when you return to the conversation.