Seven Guidelines for Safeguarding the Middle Ground (part 1)

If you need help regulating and resolving conflict safely, these seven guidelines are for you. Adopting these guidelines will safeguard the middle ground within your relationship. Part 1 of a 3-part series.

forced marriage

If you need help regulating and resolving conflict safely, these seven guidelines are for you. They can help you make difficult conversations productive, steer you and your partner away from destructive talk, and help you nurture an atmosphere of emotional safety. Without an atmosphere of emotional safety, nothing flourishes in your relationship except alienation.

Adopting these guidelines, whenever pertinent, will safeguard the middle ground within your relationship.

  1. Avoid generalizing and stereotyping.
  2. Do not blurt responses.
  3. No name calling.
  4. Speak honestly and judiciously.
  5. Develop patience. Sustain it.
  6. Think about what your partner says in terms of who your partner is.
  7. Time out signal have it in place; use it as needed.



JOHN: I can’t stand being around you when we visit your parents. You always get this glazed look in your eyes, and I feel like I’m alone with them.

KAREN: Thanks for the support. At least you’re consistent. I can never count on you when I’m feeling stressed.

John generalizes about Karen’s moods, particularly when she’s around her parents. She admits to having a hard time around her parents, but believes that her feelings vary from visit to visit, her concerns change. He speaks about who he thinks she is yet, as far as she’s concerned, he doesn’t ‘get’ it. As a result Karen feels neglected and uncared for. She wonders, “Where is his openness to learning more about who I am? Where is his curiosity about who I am with respect to how I feel, as opposed to what he thinks I feel?” She adds, “He’s got me pigeonholed. I feel that he takes for granted that he understands me completely even though he doesn’t.”

Karen belittles John, in turn, by saying that she can “never count on” him when she feels stressed. By counterattacking this way, Karen invalidates whatever helpful efforts John has made at other times. Now he feels minimized and taken for granted. Each partner’s sense of emotional safety, as a result of their generalizing, is further diminished.


Do not simply blurt out whatever comes to mind to your partner. Consult yourself while speaking with your partner. Do you identify with the following statement: “I didn’t even know what I was going to say until I heard myself saying it.” If so, this is an especially important guideline for you to work with.

Partners at Square One tend to speak at each other without investing energy in listening to themselves or their partner. The distinction between responding and reacting makes all the difference in creating or destroying middle-ground possibilities.

Important Point: Responding Versus Reacting

Human response at its most productive involves reflection. Reacting, like a counter punch, does not. Once a statement is voiced, it cannot be retracted entirely. Impact cannot be recalled. Emphasize the listening aspect of the dialogue in your thinking. Focus on what your partner is expressing about who he is and how he feels. “Listening to yourself as you listen” will help you fan out options and choose your responses with maximum deliberateness and effectiveness.

Mark and Rob are a couple who have been together for four years. I witnessed Mark attempt to repair hurt feelings that developed from an angry exchange they had had over the phone. Mark began with an apology, but Rob quickly derailed the chance for a middle ground experience with sarcasm. Rob’s reactive comments undermine a sense of connection. Let’s listen to two versions of the same dialogue.

Version 1

MARK: I’m sorry that the conversation went the way it did. It’s very hard for me when we have difficulty communicating.

ROB: Hard for you. That’s all you really care about anyway, isn’t it? You.

I noted to myself that Rob was making no acknowledgment of Marks’s effort to approach him peaceably.

MARK (beginning to feel defensive): That isn’t fair, and you know it. I really do get upset when we have those kind of sparring matches on the phone.

ROB: Of course you get upset. Whenever I ask you for anything for me, I can count on you to get upset. Whenever I need something, you disappear.

Mark approaches again, but Rob pushes him away. Far from thinking about how his remarks are affecting the relationship, Rob glories in vindictiveness, driven compulsively by his anger. Reckless and provocative, Rob hurtles on.

MARK (switching into full defensive mode): That isn’t true. You know you have a very short memory when it comes to anything positive that I do for you.

ROB: But it isn’t as short as your ability to realize when I need to feel like you’re there for me, willing to take care of me and be a man about things!

So. Rob goes from accusations of selfishness to attacks on his partner’s manhood in three rapid steps. Before going to guideline 3, let’s listen in on an alternate version of their dialogue, this time with more responding and less reacting.

Version 2

MARK: I’m sorry that the conversation went the way it did. It’s very hard for me when we have difficulty communicating.

ROB:Hard for you. That’s all you really care about anyway, isn’t it? So far, same as last time around.

MARK: You sound very angry. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.

ROB: Why be sorry? I thought people enjoy doing things they do well. About sharing and loving, you know so little, but hurting, that’s your area of expertise. I’d think you’d take pride.

Here Mark, rather than beginning to get defensive, senses Rob’s upset and does not take Rob’s hostility as a personal attack. Rather than investing energy in defending himself, Mark demonstrates concern for Rob by acknowledging Rob’s hurt feelings. Rob has accused him of being selfish. He responds by demonstrating generosity and interest. Often, anger masks a plea for connection, and a response that validates this need can be comforting as, here, it soothes Rob.

MARK: I know you must really be angry with me. The only thing I can say is that I’m sorry you feel bad. I want you to feel better.

ROB: Hmmmm .. . (decidedly softening)

When Rob becomes angry, it marks the start of a syndrome that characteristically causes him to feel out of control. By pursuing Rob’s need for connection and attention, Mark creates a bridge that underscores his understanding of how difficult this out-of-control feeling is for Rob. This helps Rob feel less isolated, which soothes him. Mark’s response models the opposite of belittling Rob’s feelings. By daring to approach Rob directly, Mark demonstrates confidence that order can be restored to their chaotic interchange. His offer of tender contact is accepted. Through his initiative, Mark has located the middle ground, and Rob extends himself beyond the confines of his anger to join him there.

MARK: Whatever I’ve done that’s upset you, I’m sorry that you are upset.

ROB: I probably didn’t need to get that angry. I know there was no reason for it.

Here, Mark’s apology acknowledges and expresses concern for his partner’s pain. Rob’s reply signals that he is relieved to feel less isolated; his reflective side emerges, no longer eclipsed by the anger. Research indicates that couples who can resolve anger together, as Rob and Mark do in this second version of their fight, have a good prognosis for success as a couple.

Rob’s comments during the first version of their fight were in appropriate to the needs of their relationship. The only sense in which his remarks were appropriate is that they segue perfectly into our next guideline

The Power Of Middle Ground

This article was adapted with permission from The Power Of Middle Ground: A Couples Guide to Renewing Your Relationship copyright © 2009 by Marty Babits, LCSW, BCD (New York, NY) Pometheus Books 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherts, New York 14228-2119 Marty Babits, LCSW, BCD (New York, NY), is a psychotherapist in private practice and a member of the Executive Supervisory Committee of FACTS (the Family and Couples Treatment Service) of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.


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