Let’s start with a scenario: A man and a woman are in the car coming home from dinner with their three-year-old asleep in the back seat. They get into an ongoing disagreement that goes in circles, getting them nowhere.
They both quickly become agitated because neither one feels heard by the other, and the more they try to work out the issue, the more hurt and angry each of them becomes. They arrive home and put the child to bed. After, the wife goes to the kitchen and the husband goes upstairs to watch television to zone out and decompress. He grabs a beer from the fridge and a full bag of chips to take with him. After an hour or so, as the six-pack is emptying and the chips are long gone, engrossed in the TV, the argument is behind him.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the wife begins to wash the dishes. She gets angry, thinking how “he still doesn’t get it” and “why won’t he simply come downstairs and talk to me?”
She is very upset so she grabs a bottle of wine and sits on the couch. After a half hour or so, she is feeling pretty good, absorbed in her movie, and feeling the wine. Later she eats a large slice of cake, and soon after, another one. The movie ends, the bottle of wine and cake are both gone, and she makes her way to bed … no longer angry or upset with her husband.
The next morning, however, they get upset with themselves, thinking, “Why did I do that?!” They each feel horrible, a little hungover, and as if their weight loss diet is ruined. The “shouldn’t have…”s flood in and each partner is beating themselves up internally. Later, the wife finds herself at the store, buying another expensive purse … and the husband is betting on the football games of the week.
I describe this scenario to paint the picture of a pattern many struggle with and continue to fall into when they cope with conflict. I will explain more simplistically:
First, one feels hurt, upset, and as if their partner doesn’t understand them. The “not-so-good feelings” experienced are “negative emotions.” When someone feels negative emotions, they rapidly do a behavior to eliminate the pain. While doing the behavior, such as drinking, eating, shopping, or gambling, the pain isn’t as bad.
The problem here is that these coping behaviors are temporary. Later the next day, they feel terrible, guilty for drinking, hung over, and ashamed for eating the junk food. Continuing this pattern, they turn to another behavior to eliminate the pain, such as shopping or gambling. You don’t have to be trapped in this cycle. Take charge of your life and get proactive.
Here are a few steps to break this draining and exhausting coping cycle:
- Avoid Triggering Events: Stay away from specific events that you might know may trigger your cycle. Or learn how to prevent a triggering event from arising, through steps like improving communication with your partner. If you know going to your parents’ house is triggering, communicate with your partner beforehand so you both know this is not the time to bring something up that may lead to conflict. You know it’s going to be a busy week at work? Table the discussion for another time.
- Be Aware of Your Emotions and How You React: Start to check in with your emotions. See how you feel and sit with your emotions; don’t try to make them go away. Instead, embrace your emotions and get comfort from your partner or a friend, instead of getting comfort from a bottle of wine. Try to pay attention to what physical sensations are coming up, as well as the thoughts that are arising. This will help you differentiate what emotions are arising, as well as be able to notice the emotions before they takeover in the future.
Need more help learning how to understand your emotions? Check out this article.
- Change your Coping Behavior to a Positive Behavior: Change the coping behavior to something that doesn’t leave a sense of regret. Make a list of activities that help improve your mood – drawing, taking a long shower, going for a walk, going to the gym, cooking, journaling, playing music. Try to focus on the activity, don’t multitask.
- Write down your negative thoughts and feelings: Write your thoughts out to release your pain. This allows you a place to feel the thoughts and be pro-active at the same time. It is important to follow this with one of the activities that improve your mood. That way you won’t be stuck in those negative thoughts for the rest of the day.
- Avoid Critical and Judgmental thoughts: If you did fall into the coping pattern, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, tell yourself you are okay and you made a mistake.
- Get Comfort and Support: The coping behavior is there because your body is saying that you don’t feel good. Get soothed and comforted by your partner, friends, and family.
If you need more help breaking this cycle or improving your coping skills, call us to set up an appointment with one of our marriage and family therapists. If your coping behavior has turned into an addiction, seek professional counseling with one of our therapists or call for a referral if a higher level of care is needed.