The subject doesn't matter much. It was about household management stuff. We were in bright moods, doing stuff around the house, and then I was triggered by a particular topic. It's my tender household topic, the one I can despair over. I have been known to pile up a bunch of frustration about it and then, although trying to address it neutrally, lash out in a generalized and scathing way. I haven't done this pile-up-lash-out routine in a while because it feels terrible and I have found that focusing on what I do like about Nathan's care of our home goes a whole lot further than maintaining a mental list of the other stuff.
So from that frame of mind I casually mentioned something.
And then, in response to his response, I fell, right into the rabbit hole of frustration and lost my shit.
I said it wasn't a typical spat, and me losing my shit about a household management issue sounds pretty darn typical, so how does that work? Well, Nathan's response wasn't typical. He listened to my "casual mentioning" and then offered the advice "of focusing on what I do like", yes the very advice I have been giving myself with wild success. But I really didn't like it when I heard it from his mouth because from where I was, deep in the rabbit hole, what I heard him say was: "Well, too bad. Deal with it."
So I fumed and avoided eye contact. When he asked I said I was UPSET in a punishing kind of way. I raised my voice. I used the F-word. Typical, typical, typical.
But Nathan didn't respond defensively. He didn't get mad back at me.
I huffed and puffed, actually trying to develop some more upsetting examples and stories in my mind so as to keep my anger fueled, to keep me "right" and him "wrong". I was also half-aware that these stories, if I was able to get them going well, weren't going to aid me. I knew they would only make things worse, deepen the trench between my partner and I, make reconciliation or solutions impossible. But what really stopped me from a full-blown mental narrative in which I tallied up all the ways I was "right" is that Nathan wasn't actually fighting me about anything.
When two people go at it, throwing generalizations at one another, exaggerating past instances, spitting words, the fight quickly shifts focus. Instead of discussing the issue you end up arguing the other's tactics in the fight itself.
Common phrases I can think of are:
I can't believe you just said that!
No I don't do it ALL THE TIME. Fuck you for saying that because it isn't true!
Are you going to let me speak???
Why are you even yelling?
This is crazy!
etc etc etc
We weren't doing any of that, so I couldn't really drum up further ire. All I had was the original ire caused by Nathan's comment - the one I thought meant "too bad, deal with it". Looking back I know he was trying to be helpful, meaning he was hoping to help me with my feelings about the household issue. And I hated that response because I didn't want help with my feelings I wanted him to do something about the household issue! I assumed he was saying "Deal with it, I'm not going to change" because he wasn't jumping to fix things. What he was doing instead was giving me empathy for my hard feelings. His face was open and kind, his words were gentle. I hated it!
Or at least I thought I hated it. My anger spiked. That's when I started fuming and using the F-word.
Now if you had asked me yesterday if in this situation I would prefer my partner to jump up and immediately address the household issue or offer me empathy about my struggles with the household issue I would have shrieked with confidence: JUMP UP AND ADDRESS! JUMP UP AND ADDRESS! But now I am not so certain. If he had jumped up and addressed the household issue in some way or other, I would think that the solution to hard feelings is Nathan doing something different.
That is a slippery slope my friends.
Let's repeat, if Nathan had tried to help me with my hard feelings by trying to fix them then I would be lulled into the notion that other people doing what I want is the answer to my difficult feelings and that, furthermore I will only find relief from my hard feelings if people do the things I think they should do, all the time.
Instead he didn't fix a thing. At the time I thought, "The fucking nerve!" and I was pissed. And then he didn't fight back and I couldn't get my anger any bigger. Then I bonked into his comment again, realizing the crux of the issue. My anger deflated. When he asked me if I wanted to talk about it more I said: "Well, no. Because I realize that mostly I just want you to be different. In this one area I want you to be different. And I know that won't do. So then I am just left not liking how you handle this household issue and that... just... feels... so.... hard."
My anger had gone. I was limp shouldered and sad. I saw him as someone who could hold me in my sadness.
My tantrum was over.
NPR has an article out right now: What's Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams. Scientists studied the kicks and screams of tantrums to find that they follow a pattern of sorts, an intricate one of anger winding around sadness. But the part that stood out for me was:
The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible, Potegal said, was to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger, the scientists said, was to do nothing. Of course, that isn't easy for parents or caregivers to do.
It's true. It's hard to do nothing - no fixing, no arguing, like Nathan did for me - because the child seems to get even angrier! In fact when later I thanked Nathan for his response to me he mentioned that he wasn't sure if it had helped. I had gotten so angry. And he's right, I did. But what I experienced was a spike that sputtered out into nothing in a matter of minutes. My "tantrum" was short-lived and clean, meaning no further emotional damage was caused- we didn't insult one another or hurt one another.
Anyone that has seen a child's tantrum in full effect knows that further damage is a common side affect. And trying to find the "right" socks or the "right" ninja sword when a child is in a full-blown tantrum never works. You can "fix" all you like but all you end up doing is prolonging the anger. If you argue that there are no other possible socks to try or that there is only one f-ing ninja sword in the house, you again prolong the agony, fuel the fire. But if you just say "things aren't working out for you huh" they thrash about in the light of that truth, maybe even flail and thrash ever more wildly, but without longevity. In seconds they are a crumpled lump, willing, maybe even yearning to crawl into your lap for solace.
It wasn't with excitement that I realized the science of children's tantrums could be applied to me. And it wasn't with delight that I realized Nathan's comment was just what I needed. (Oh the thrashing and flailing!)
But oh well.