When Patty and Joanne (not their real names, and the situation is modified to protect confidentiality) came to us for coaching, they were on the brink of breakup. They’d been together for five years and had planned to marry, but now they were both so angry and hurt they were constantly fighting and crying.
Their conflict had started when Joanne decided to quit her job as a nurse and go back to school.
“I can’t believe Jo would derail the future we planned,” Patty said bitterly. “We’re both in our forties, and with real estate going up, if we don’t buy a house soon, we’ll never be able to.”
Joanne has a more quiet personality, so it took some urging to get her to speak up. But when she finally did, her hurt and confusion were just as big. “I hate my job. Yeah, it pays okay, but I hate it. I became a nurse to please my parents. I hate interacting with sick people; I hate the smell of the hospital. I dread every part of it. I can’t believe Patty wants me to keep on doing it.”
“But you only work four days a week!” Patty interrupted.
“Yeah, and I spent the other three recovering and then bracing myself again.” Jo’s eyes were wet. “I can’t believe you’d want to keep me from trying to have a work life I could actually enjoy.”
“Well, I can’t believe you’d want to keep me from owning a house! It’s something I’ve always wanted. And you said you did, too.”
Both women were in the same position – feeling angry, hurt and misunderstood. And frankly, many of the couples that come to us for coaching are in the same boat. What gives?
Joanne and Patty are making the #1 most common – and most damaging – relationship mistake. Each of them has gotten triggered, plunged into “fight or flight” mode, by fear.
In Patty’s case, it’s the fear of never being able to own a house, and everything that means to her (lack of security, poverty in her old age, ending up a homeless bag woman… the triggered brain is great at catastrophizing.) In Joanne’s case, it’s the fear of having to stay at a job she hates for the next 20+ years.
But it doesn’t really matter what the fear is. You have your own set, and so does your girlfriend or partner. The bottom line is that when we get triggered and plunge into fear, it feels awful – and so the person we think has made us feel that awful feeling begins to look and feel to us like our enemy.
It’s one of the worst feelings in the world when the person you love the most suddenly feels like your enemy! It’s also almost always a misperception. We can’t think clearly when we’re triggered; our cognitive function literally shuts down. So the big mistake is believing what your triggered brain tells you about your partner and your relationship.
As a coach, Michelle specializes in helping couples tease apart this pattern. Fortunately, once both women learn a few simple skills and practices, they become able to short-circuit the cycles of getting triggered, cut through all the hurt and blame, and face the real issues – together.
For both Patty and Joanne, it was also important to realize they were acting out their parents’ scripts. But they couldn’t have that insight while they were still triggered, so Michelle helped them calm down with some slow deep breathing and metta (self-love blessings) first.
Then came the work of disentangling their strong emotions from what was really going on in the present.
“Patty, you seem to be afraid that Joanne is trying to take something precious away from you. Is there anything particular that reminds you of?” Michelle asked.
Patty thought for a minute. “My mom,” she said. “She was always saving for something and then my dad would drain the accounts and go gamble the money away, or lose it in some get-rich-quick scheme. They always fought about money. My mom never worked so she was completely dependent on my father.”
“Are you in that same situation now?”
“No, of course not! I have a good job. I’ve always been proud of being self-sufficient. In fact, Joanne and I haven’t even combined most of our finances.”
“And Joanne, you seem to be afraid that Patty is trying to take something precious away from you. What or who does that remind you of?” Michelle continued.
“My dad,” Joanne answered sheepishly. “He constantly complained about having to work nights and weekends to pay for my mom’s insatiable spending. She’d redecorate the living room on a whim and he’d stop talking to her for weeks.”
Once Patty and Joanne recognized that the full force of their emotion came from much earlier in their lives, and didn’t even belong to them, they could re-engage with each other as allies who wanted to love and support one another. And when Michelle helped them turn their creative problem-solving ability back on (since that, too, shuts down when we get triggered), they eventually came up with a plan that enabled both womens’ needs to be met.
“I can qualify for a first-time homebuyer’s program that will let me buy a house on my own!” Patty announced excitedly a few weeks later. “It’ll be a more modest house than we could’ve bought together, but it’ll be fine.”
“I’m relieved at the thought of not having a big house payment,” Joanne admitted. “And it feels so good to have her supporting my school plans now. I’m going to start an auto mechanics course next month!”
“You’ll look so hot in those grease-monkey coveralls,” Patty teased. (It was heartwarming to watch the two of them flirting like honeymooners again!)
Of course, this story has been condensed. It took some tears, some courage and a little bit of time for Patty and Joanne to face what was really happening inside them and between them. But the good news is that once they did, their relationship not only recovered, but became much stronger than it had before. Now both women have taken responsibility for pursuing their own dreams, and the love, emotional support and passion are flowing freely between them once again.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment to learn about Massive Mistake #2!
And if this story has inspired you to learn more, watch our 5-minute video about Love Coaching! Or if you really want to know all about how Love Coaching helps both coupled and single women, we’ve got a 17-minute video with lots of inspiring stories and examples from our coaching practice.