“Ask Dr. Bukky” is ELIXHER’s advice column that offers guidance to queer women of color on relationships and mental health wellness. Got a question you want Dr. Bukky to tackle in the column? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Dr. Bukky,
My wife and I got into a physical altercation. It has never happened before and I don’t think it will happen again. Should I be concerned?
Dear Worried Wife,
I am so sorry to hear this. I imagine this must have been scary for both of you. The introduction of physical aggression into an intimate relationship is certainly concerning because physical safety is the most basic foundation for a healthy relationship. If that foundation is shaky, it will be impossible to feel safe and secure in your relationship.
I’m curious about what makes you feel confident that it will never happen again. Once the use of physical aggression is introduced into a relationship, the likelihood of its recurrence increases significantly. There are different reasons that physical aggression occurs in intimate relationships, including: a) attempts to control and express power; b) self-defense; c) attempts to manage or express internal feelings of anger or jealousy; d) attempts to retaliate for emotional or physical hurt caused by one’s partner; e) general difficulties with communication; and f) personality/character issues.
Regardless of which reason applies to your situation, physical aggression is literally and figuratively the most dangerous thing for your relationship. I really hate to be Dr. Debbie Downer and yet I want you to know that unless you and your partner clearly understand what happened to trigger your use of violence and know what to do next time to prevent its recurrence, there is a higher risk that it will happen again.
I’d like to offer you a couple of suggestions of things to do to avoid this from recurring in the future. I encourage you to choose the strategies that make the most sense for you, given your expert knowledge of yourself and your relationship. If you can only choose one, I highly recommend the Time Out strategy described below.
1) Invite your partner to read this article.
2) Tell your partner about what happened for you that triggered your use of aggression and the impact it had on you. Focus on describing the feelings (e.g., painful, scary, sad, disappointing) that came up for you and the meanings you made about her, yourself, and the relationship as a result. Be sure to share any memories the experience triggered for you, such as past hurts or relationships where violence occurred, contexts where you may have witnessed or learned that violence can have a place in intimate relationships, etc. It is critical that you invite your partner to share the same with you and that you listen attentively when she shares with you.
3) Make the commitment to take a Time Out to avoid escalation during conflict. A Time Out is essentially taking time to cool down from the conversation with the intent and plan to continue it at a mutually agreed upon time. Time Out helps you slow things down and prevents the risk of saying or doing things that hurt the relationship, e.g., becoming physically aggressive. The key to successfully using Time Out is that you have both discussed and made the following agreements: a) to use it— that way calling a Time Out is not seen as an avoidance or withdrawal tactic; b) how long the break from the conversation will last—more than 30 minutes and no more than 24 hours; c) how a Time Out is asked for/initiated—use the pronouns “I” or “We” and NOT “you,” e.g., “I need a Time Out” or “I think we could use a Time Out.” It’s best to avoid saying provocative phrases like, “You need to take a Time Out.”
4) Engage in individual therapy to get better at understanding your feelings and thoughts and learn how to communicate them clearly to your partner especially when you are feeling intense or distressing emotions.
5) Engage in couple’s therapy to understand and change negative patterns of relating to one another that result in escalation.
I applaud you for your thoughtfulness and courage to speak up about this rather than hiding in silence— it says a lot about your strength and value for your relationship. Given how costly physical aggression can be to you, your partner, your relationship and your children, I highly encourage you both to take action to support yourselves and protect your relationship.
Wishing you all the best,
Dr. Bukky Kolawole is a NY-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping lesbian and gay couples cultivate the healthy and fulfilling relationships they deserve. She has offices in SoHo (Manhattan) and Park Slope (Brooklyn) and offers late evening hours to accommodate the needs of professionals. For more info about Dr. Bukky, visit her website at www.drbukkyk.com.
This column does not constitute a consultation or the establishment of a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Bukky Kolawole and should therefore not be construed as such. The rights and privileges associated with such a relationship can only be conferred through a scheduled, in person session.