Sometimes clients come to me terribly frustrated with their partners. Their behaviors are intolerable and inconsiderate, they say, and they find them the most heartless, ungrateful souls they’ve met.
When I ask them why they got together in the first place, they say their partners didn’t used to be like this. They’d buy them flowers, actually listen to them speak and happily share the daily chores. What changed? My clients are convinced their partners were putting on a show that couldn’t last, and have simply gone back to being the psychopaths they really are.
What if it were the other way around? What if the charming person they knew was the real self and Mr. Hyde is the dark side that emerges under certain conditions? Neuropsychology shows that when we are calm and content, we are in our “home-base” – closest to our authentic selves. It is when stress overwhelms us that we derail from our true personality and become the worst version of ourselves.
In relationships, this can create feedback loops that end up in unfortunate downward spirals. A self-confident partner turns aggressive and over-bearing. A calm and steady one becomes stubborn and resistant to change. And an energetic and sociable partner suddenly becomes careless and oblivious to feelings and consequences. You’re baffled by the changes and see it as a sign of them not caring about you the way they used to. Not only does it affect your self-worth, it sets off your own stress signals and pushes you to behave in ways that are unlike you. The downward spiral begins…
To gently steer ourselves and our partners back to our personality “set-points”, we need to remove the effects of stress in order to open up to each other the way we once did.
Look after Yourself
“We” begins with “me”. Much like the airplane oxygen mask routine, we need to first get our own selves grounded before we can help others do so. To shift from the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system back to the rest and recuperate response of the parasympathetic nervous system, we need to look after our needs, let go of self-criticism and take out time where we nourish our bodies, minds and souls. Think about the ways that work best for you and incorporate them in your every day.
Check your Mental Distortions
When stressed, we see the world through gloomy and catastrophic lenses. Our thoughts become extremely negative giving rise to unmanageable feelings. An episode that may have previously washed over us, sticks to us like Velcro and plays over and over in our minds until we’re ready to explode. Taking a step back to check in with our cognitive distortions, challenging their validity and questioning their helpfulness allows us to take the edge off of the emotion and respond in a productive manner.
Entering the world of others and looking out from their perspective is one the greatest strengths we can develop in our relationships at home, at work and in life. Doing so allows us to empathize with the feelings of others instead of simply clinging onto our own – being part of an eco-system rather than an ego-system – that leads to upward spirals of relationship-building. When others feel heard and understood, they become instantly calmer, let their guard down, and are more likely to reciprocate in a similar manner.
Assert – or Let Go
When we come from a place of safety within ourselves, we develop an inner self-worth that is resistant to other people’s words and actions. We can take their reactions in stride and decide on the best way to respond to their transgressions in a calm and reasonable manner. Sometimes this may mean asserting ourselves and making our needs heard and respected. Other times, it may be about realizing that we’re both being unreasonable and its best to let go.
There are actual psychopaths that we need to be wary of. But many are made in the downward spiral of fear, misinterpretation and unhealthy communication. If personality were indeed a continuum where stressful situations push us towards the extreme, we would do well to maintain a sense of safety within the relationship so we forego the need to control the other in order to feel safe.
Now I’d love to hear back from you! Do you find your partner’s personality has taken a nosedive for the worse? If so, what have you tried? And what has worked?