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  • Writer's pictureSmooth Kahuna

“Wet Towels on the Bed”

A look at Communication based on the Experience of the Phenomenological. Say that Five Times Fast.

Let’s set the stage for how things went with a wet towel on the bed. It was early in my marriage and like all couples my wife and I got into an argument. Back then we were in our little one bedroom loft in Pasadena California. We were doing our night time routine and the wife had just finished taking a shower. Normally we would just hop into bed and cuddle before falling off to sleep. This night however would be different, it would be one our first fights as a married couple.

My new bride stepped out the shower with her hair wrapped in a towel and one around her body. When, in a gesture to be playful with me, she took her body wrap and threw it on the bed and did a little dance. I giggled, and knew what her intentions were but like a complete idiot I suddenly and without thinking killed the mood when I said “Oh, hey don’t leave leave your wet towel on the bed, that’s disgusting.”

Talk about not feeling the room or having a clue, Boom! I could see she was wounded and felt a little dejected. Now we were in an argument, very soon we would be in a fight.

My Excuses

You see dear reader, I grew up in Hawaii and 30 years ago most homes did not have central air conditioning. Growing up in a plantation style home you would leave the windows open to catch the breeze to cool the house. A few problems though, wither it was the sugar cane burning or the red phosphorous dirt on the wind a wet towel on the bed was a disaster. Mom was constantly sweeping or vacuuming everyday. The last thing you wanted was a wet towel on the bed collecting this dirt or ash and staining the bedding.

So for me when it came to “Wet Towels on the Bed” behavioral programming was quite literally beaten into me. My poor wife did not know this about me, how could she? How and when would that specific conversation come up until it happened? Like most arguments they seem to happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Putting us in an immediate confused and defensive state. Those moments of “Wait, what? How did we get here, what did I miss?”.

What is going on?

Well part of what is going on is something called Fight or Flight. It is a survival instinct we all have and can manifest when feeling intense emotion’s. In fact it is unconsciously tied to our physiology. On average the trigger to this state happens when our heart rate hits around 95bpm. Our bodies will dump some adrenaline and put us into Fight or Flight. Why? Because it thinks we are in actual physical danger. Now this worked great for our ancestors who were running from or fighting predators but in a couple that is in a loving relationship…. well, not so much.

The problem with Fight or Flight in a caring and loving relationship is it only really pursues two outcomes before it settles down. One “Knock a Fool out” fight, or two “Run the Hell Away” flight. We can see how in a loving relationship this can be an issue. Most couples don’t realize this and those of us with an ounce of restraint unconsciously will develop behavioral patterns that physically manifest to basically keep us from harming each other.

Have you ever been in an argument or fight with your spouse or partner where one of you is walking away and the other person is chasing them around the house? Or you are talking to your beloved but they will just not look at you, even though they say they are listening they are turned away, stonewalling the conversation? Whelp, those are physical manifestations of a pattern connected to Fight or Flight.

Anger Make You More Dumber’er

Like so many of us we often find it difficult to communicate effectively when emotions get in the way. In fact it is understood that the effect of the emotion Anger can drop your IQ about 20 points in the moment. Basically the longer you are in a state of Anger the stupider and more impulsive you get.

Now don’t get me wrong “Anger” in it’s proper place is a wonderful emotion. Often it is in response to a feeling of injustice or lack of fairness. It tells us when we are not getting a fair shake or when a friend is being exploited. It is when we channel that Anger through unproductive Rage and Wrath we manifest behaviors that often get us into trouble.

Like “Hey man, what did that wall ever do to you?”. Or, you know that one fear your spouse told you about becoming just like their dad? Well now you are enraged by them, so kaboom! “You ARE just like your Father!” that will teach them. Wrath and Rage can give a false permission to say and do some pretty dumb ugly behaviors towards someone we are in a loving relationship with.

Let’s try to get to the point.

In this article, we attempt to understand how often when we are trying to communicate in an argument or fight, we are subconsciously channeling multiple experience’s. Not just the experiences about the phenomena for example ”Wet Towels on the Bed”, but thought’s and feelings even unhealed emotional wounds from our past. These manifest first in the physical body, our nervous system., we call them “feelings”. Travel right past our consciousness, a majority of the time, and come out in words and behaviors some of which we may regret later.

Those experiences that create with in us those feelings and emotions can be based; in the now, the past, or even anxiety of the future, or they can be a mixture of all. It’s a convoluted mess when you really think about it. Then we have the audacity to think we can settle the matter right then and there? Good luck with that friend.

Whatever the phenomenon is; towels, dishes, paying bill’s, we each have had our own thoughts and feelings about it based on our experiences and when we argue about the “It” we often fall into a pattern of poor communication objectives. A maladaptive personal goal for the argument if you will.

What are some poor Communication Objectives in a Loving Relationship during an Argument? Glad you asked. I will tell you more in another Article but here is the quick and dirty.

One Example is: If you are arguing with your partner or spouse and your sole objective is to “Win” the argument, well congratulations looser you got it all wrong. If you win you loose, maybe not today, or next week but eventually your constant need to always be right will create a wedge in your relationship.

Eventually creating a toxic Narrative that overtime will become and infection making your relationship sickly. If not remedied this narrative will eventually kill your relationship through the ugly and harsh story it tells your spouse. Those phrases "They never listen" "I can't get a word in" "Why do you always have to be right?"

Help! What is one to do?

Instead of those strategy's that never seem to work try this and I mean “Try” because you will never bat 1000. In every conversation and argument with your partner or spouse pursue a spirit of Equanimity. A guaranteed outcome that no matter how uncomfortable the argument is, you will both attempt to grow and connect through it. Maybe even learn something about each other along the way. While you’re at it, you both might want to create some rules of engagement, boundaries that can help in this pursuit of virtue.

Like putting a time limit of about 15 minutes when you are arguing, both agreeing to step away when it becomes to intense and check back with each other in 30 minutes to see if you both want to continue. Unless it is life threatening, table it for another day. Hopefully you have the rest of your lives together what is the rush?

Another good rule would be to never get physical or try to purposely hurt each other emotionally. Also never threaten Divorce in a fight. Talk about the Nuclear option. How can anyone respond to a threat of Divorce when the argument started about Kitty Litter?

Finally overall, and to sum up this article in a few words, our main objective in an argument is we attempt to Validate each others Experience.

My Wife’s Experiences.

Unkind Words Hurt Your Relationship, Even When They Are Unintentional.

“Disgusting!” that is where my wife felt it. For her the argument was not about the wet towel on the bed, for her it went much deeper and a different direction. It went back to all the times when she was a child and her parents complaining about her room. To the times she was in College and that one roommate would always complain about her housekeeping. It pierced into part of her self doubt, one where she felt inadequate in her ability to keep the home. All of those negative experiences came rushing forward not because she was emotionally weak, but the man with whom she had been the most vulnerable with in her life, and with whom she was trying to initiate some romance, decided instead to call her disgusting and lecture her about some stupid wet towel on the bed. What a Jerk!

You will blow it as a couple 69% of the time for the next 30 years.

You see our argument and fight was not about just that exact moment. It inadvertently channeled every experience, belief, and encounter we had unfinished business with. Those harsh criticisms from family or friends, the language used to cut us down, the disapproving tone of someone's voice, past embarrassments, old wounds, you name it. I could go on but to sum it up, the fight was not the fight. The Wet Towel on the Bed represented more than that.

How did it go?

The worst apology you can ever make after wounding your partner is

“I am sorry YOU, feel that way,”.

The wet towel on the bed represented more than what was apparent to either of us. What was at the core was not just that moment but every experience in our lives that was psychically and emotionally connected to it. I would have loved to say that night me and the wife did the right thing and attempted to understand and validate each others experiences, but alas we went to bed upset and apologized in the morning to each other over breakfast.

Which, was and is an okay repair attempt. I highly recommend apologizing! Taking ownership of poor behavior with your partner can never go wrong. Also what would we expect? We were completely oblivious to what we both needed as a great remedy for that kind of situation. We were both young a selfish and yet not really in touch with our needs for the relationship, as most young couples are. We were so focused on the behaviors from last night we were not mature enough in our relationship or even our own lives to ask what that was really all about.

To be frank we did not even come up with a solution too “Wet Towels on the Bed” it kind of worked itself out. Occasionally a pattern formed where I would gruff about it, and every now and then give a lecture. She would make an attempt, after calling me a Jerk, but cycle would return after a few weeks to a couple of months.

Everything changed later when we had our first child. With all of those responsibilities the last thing on our mind was some stupid wet towel on the bed. Who has time for that when you are up to your ears in diapers, feedings, and middle of the night soothing’s?

Would have, Could have, Should have.

So what is the approach for an argument between a couple? Well first listen, actively listen to the words being said. Then make every attempt to feel the defensiveness in your body. Learn to recognize it. Where does it manifest? Does it hit you in your chest? Are you clinching your Jaw or making a fist? Do have the sudden urge to run like hell?

Knowing what your defensiveness feels like can help avoid poor communication with your partner. Let it remind you about what you would automatically do in the past in this situation with your partner. Then, throw that crap out because it never worked in the past why the hell would it work now? What is it that they say? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a mark of insanity?

But when you know or suspect you are in a Defensive Posture, attempt to shift to a state of Curiosity. Be curious with your partner. Ask yourself do you really know what the problem is? What is your partner telling you? Don’t assume. Is it because the dishes were not done? Or because you said you would do the dishes and did not? Or is your partner upset because they feel like you don’t listen to them and they feel hurt and ignored? Get curious, like genuinely curious. You can say something like “Babe, I am not sure what you are upset about. Please help me understand.”. Hell, it might not be about the dishes at all. The dishes represent a symbol that is reinforcing a fear in your partner that they can no longer trust you and you’re going to ruin everything. That may sound a little extreme but just know that you don’t know.

Ask Don’t Tell.

No Great Conversation Starts with “Hey Asshole!”

When you are being curious ask your partner about their feelings. Watch and observe. This argument started well before any words were spoken. It started in their body, maybe a sudden sigh, a look of cringe, a feeling of disgust. It is in the cadence in their steps as they walk across the house that tells you, “Oh boy I’m about to get it”. Or where they do the dishes, very loudly and you know they are banging them on purpose. My favorite is when they talk to themselves, “Well I guess I am the only one who knows how to dish’s in this house, no don’t help me I got it!”

Likewise when the shoe is on the other foot and you are the one with the offense be aware of your body. You are projecting and body language is older than consciousness. More on that in another article.

When I am working with my couples I try to always remind them to use a soft approach. Gottman call’s it “The Soft Start Up”. In sessions I will jokingly use language for example like “Honey, Baby, Pookie, Sugar Bum” those pet names we give each other in a relationship. These little goofy and cute expressions can go a long way to to disarm each other when things are unpleasant.

The Point, finally.

Who is right or wrong is not the central goal of communication between a loving couple, likewise agreeing with everything they say gets old really fast. Also never use “Let’s agree to disagree" to obfuscate the responsibility you owe to each other.

The point, dear reader is Validation. Validation of each others person-hood. Validation before Correction. Validation of each others experiences about the phenomena. Validation of each others emotions. Even if the argument is uncomfortable, attempt to make each other heard and seen. Understanding each other fully will take time and repetition but till then, Validate, Validate, Validate.

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