Say you’re about to get into one of your typical fights. The fight you’ve had ten thousand times before and it always ends badly. The one where you say this and your partner says that and the next thing you know you’ve turned into a matched pair of lunatics.
Maybe you slam a door or you yell. Maybe you turn into an ice queen or a sniper or you go silent as stone. Whatever your style, if you’re like most couples, when trouble brews you do the one thing that’s 100% guaranteed to get you into a fight. You get sucked in.
What if instead of “going with the flow,” one of you gets a grip on your sanity and says: Let’s. Back. Up.
Short, sweet, and incredibly powerful— if you have the wherewithal to not only say it but do it.
Let’s back up is the next best thing to having avoided a fight in the first place. Think of it as a safety net to keep you from getting unnecessarily hurt.
Let’s back up is like calling time out, only better. It introduces not only a pause, but a choice about how to proceed. Let’s back up says “we’re heading down the wrong road and it would be wise to turn back.” As couples we often head down the wrong road, and for a variety of not very good reasons we usually keep going.
Let’s back up is the sane and loving alternative.
1. Let’s back up acknowledges the inevitability of conflict without attributing blame. The implication that WE’RE getting into trouble goes down a whole lot easier than CUT IT OUT. YOU’RE BEING A JERK. Even if in your heart of hearts you’re thinking just that, let’s back up is a good way to bypass the finger pointing that is guaranteed to escalate the upset.
2. Let’s back up is premised on forgiveness. It says “I did something. You did something. Let’s not get hung up on the details. Let’s take a step back and try it again.”
3. Let’s back up recognizes that marriage is a work in process because we’re all a work in process. Every one of us has plenty to learn about being a more effective partner. Our mistakes are a prime opportunity to do so. Pausing and then approaching our problems in a new way is the only way we can grow.
4. Let’s back up is a clear statement of commitment. It says “no matter how bad things have gotten, I believe we can do better.”
So why in the world aren’t we all doing this already?
Simply put, it’s much easier said than done.
Let’s back up calls for good self-control. When faced with the high anxiety of marital conflict, when we’re flooded with emotions and our sense of security is threatened, it can seem nearly impossible to step back and unhook.
Let’s back up also calls for a willingness to forgive— right then and there. Forgiveness is never easy, and harder still in the heat of the moment. Harsh words, meanness, bad behavior, blaming… Most of us are used to latching on to these things and running with them when a far better option would be to set them aside and let ourselves or our partner give it a healthier go.
Like my clients who came in with the following story:
“After our last session we were driving home and John continued the conversation you and he had been having about how his mother was either angry or distant and he never knew what to expect. I felt really sad thinking of him being a small child with no one safe to turn to. I put my hand on his back and said, ‘I think we should get in bed early as many nights as possible and snuggle up rather than fall asleep reading or watching TV.’
John’s response was something like, ‘well, you know I stay up much later than you and you can’t expect me to get in bed at 9:30.’ I won’t say my feelings weren’t hurt by his rebuff, because they were. My old way would have been to snap back with something nasty of my own. But I recognized that this was a perfect ‘do-over’ moment.
‘Let’s back up,’ I said. ‘I just offered something sweet and you seem to have missed it. Shall I say it again?’
John took a deep breath and I could tell he felt bad about making a dig. ‘Yes, please do,’ he said. ‘Only this time I’ll be sure to tell you how touched I am by your very sweet offer.’
I have to admit, I was impressed with both of us.”
Winifred!!! What a great way to avoid that tempting accusatory tone! Of course, we must watch the timbre of our voice as well, but this is a great tool to help keep couples out of trouble. Your example is moving in that it allows the wife to make her rejected offer a second time. It would have been easy for her to give up and simply be angry. Have a dizzy Monday!!
Much easier to fight than make peace, isn’t it?
Thanks for your comment.
This is great! I love it.
By far our communication has become so much better due to our marriage therapy. (Have I mentioned I love our therapist?) We had horrible communication before. Explosive, shutting down, you name it.
Another thought our therapist gave us was when one of us get’s overwhelmed is to just pause and take a break. One of us will just say I need a break, I am overwhelmed. The other needs to respect this. We aren’t saying we’re done with the conversation, just…we need a break in that moment before it gets too heated and we can take it back up later. It requires patience and respect, which is hard sometimes, but in the long run, much better for our relationship.
I loved this one…. especially your example at the end. I can certainly use “Let’s back up” in my own life. thanks!
The last example reminded me of our last fight a few days ago which led into serious fighting and then a divorce suggestion…we live in athens greece and our home is like 55klm away from the centre of athens,from our work and all our friends.so it was our anniversary last tuesday and as a surprise gift i bought concerts to a group we both liked when we first saw them perform live and then booked a hotel room in the centre of athens,near our workplaces so that we don t have to drive 1 hour back home.i had already arranged with my parents so that they would keep our 15month old son..needless to say he totally blew me off..i cancelled the concert and the hotel room…sometimes i just don t get it why it is so hard to see things positively…he is so negative with everything and of course me for the last 6 months…it s the 3rd time we have uttered the word divorce during this period of time…of course it s not something i want..i sought therapy myself since he was so negative to go to couples therapy…i guess my comment could be for lots of your topics…anyway i just wanted to say that i just wrote down your questions before deciding for a divorce hoping my husband will find them…
Thank you for your great articles
I’m so glad you found my articles helpful. Marriage can be so difficult sometimes.
Divorce, especially when you have such a young child, should not be rushed into. I hope my questions help.
Wishing you the best.