I’m going to assume at some point in your childhood you either took part in or watched a game of dodgeball. For some players their competitive side kicks in and they become laser focused on hitting as many opponents as they can, throwing the ball with all the force and speed they can conjure. For others it’s all about survival-duck and run! The mere thought of the sting that rubber ball may leave behind brings on all kinds of anxiety and fear.
There’s a different kind of playing ball that not everyone has played or remembers but you can easily imagine. The gentle back and forth toss a parent or caregiver plays with a young child that is usually met with squeals of delight or how about a relaxing “catch” with your mom or dad in the backyard. Just the two of you, a couple of well-worn baseball gloves and a ball. With every toss time stands still and in that moment all that matters is sharing how your day went, what you want to do over Summer break or taking bets on who will win the next World Series. Whatever the conversation, it is likely attached to feelings of safety, love, calm and happy memories.
Now take a moment to think about a time your spouse came home from work in a crappy mood and instead of their usual happy greeting you’re met with sarcastic, snappy or critical comments. Perhaps another scenario comes to mind-you’ve got plans with your extended family over the weekend which brings up all kinds of stressful thoughts for you and before you know it you’re taking out these frustrations on your partner when they really don’t deserve it. When your spouse or partner snaps or yells it's like that dodgeball coming at you fast and hard. What’s your first instinct? Do you react by picking up the ball and hurling it right back? Or do you respond by choosing to toss the ball gently back?
When your spouse throws a hardball your way- your reaction is to either defend the attack-thinking “what a jerk!” and throw the ball back just as hard if not harder, or take a softer less defensive approach of “whoa, something totally stressful must have happened today”. In the latter case instead of hauling insults and verbal daggers back and forth you choose to throw a slow soft ball to try and connect with and soothe your partner. What do I mean by throwing a soft ball? I mean not reacting but responding, it means recognizing the possibility that while not the greatest approach, the hardball may be a bid for connection. Underneath the frustrated stressed tone of your spouse may be a desire to be heard, understood, validated, accepted and that slow ball is you reaching out and trying to connect.
I say “trying to connect” because the reality is if your partners stress tolerance is really low, even the soft game of catch may be too much and they could still see your responses as “threatening or antagonizing” as opposed to a genuine desire to be emotionally available to them. In those cases sometimes just simply sitting with your spouse is helpful until they feel more emotionally regulated (I'll share more on this next week) and ready to open up.
It’s not always easy taking that step back and recognizing that someone else’s behavior is more about them and what they have going on but I challenge you to give it a try next time and save the dodgeball for the court.