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.
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.”