hijack: [hahy-jak] verb
- to sieze, steal, divert or appropriate, with force.
- to rob (a person)
We’re sure you’re familiar with the word “hijack” – mainly used to describe a form of auto theft, it can also be used to describe when a conversation, meeting or idea is overtaken by someone else. We’ve started using this term to describe a phenomenon that can happen with couples. Let’s use an example to illustrated how hijacking plays out in relationships:
You’re feeling frustrated that your partner has been spending too much time on their cell phone while at the dinner table. When you see your partner on their phone, you tell yourself that you are unimportant and alone and you feel hurt and abandoned. What you need is your partner to hear you and try to keep their cell phone away from the dinner table.
You let your partner know how you feel. What you hoped to hear was…“okay, what I hear you say is that when I’m on my cell phone you feel ignored and unimportant – I don’t want you to feel that way. I will try to be better about putting my phone away at dinner time. Can you think of any other way that I can help you to feel better about this?”
However, as we know, things don’t often go as we’ve imagined. Instead, your partner gets defensive. They respond by coming up with many different occasions that they’ve not been on their phone. Then, the hijacking occurs. Your partner uses this “window of opportunity” to air their grievances toward you. Your partner begins to detail all of the ways you’ve been distracted by technology. Now, you feel yourself getting defensive, shutting down and feeling defeated. You begin to tell yourself that you wished you’d never brought this up – because now, on top of your feelings being ignored and your needs being dismissed, you feel defensive and angry.
This opportunity for honesty and connection has gone terribly wrong and you are now telling yourself that you’ll think twice before approaching your partner with a frustration again. Whats more, you are now both angry at one another and likely feel a decent amount of resentment for failing to navigate a rocky moment with one another.
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. This type of interaction can quickly disintegrate the sense of power and control a couple feels over managing conflict and getting through tough conversations. Hijacking can very quickly carve fast and deep patterns of painful and dysfunctional communication.
So. How can hijacking by avoided?
*Awareness is paramount. Name it. Share this article with your partner. Talk about it. Ask yourselves these questions:
- Why do we hijack each other’s expression of needs?
- What gets lost in hijacking?
- What do we risk to lose if we continue to hijack our partner when they are vulnerable and share a need or a frustration within the relationship?
- How would it feel for each of us to navigate a rocky conversation without hijacking?
- What might come of “hijack-free conversations”?
*The next step is to deepen our understanding of defensiveness and how it plays out in relationships. This article from The Gottman Institute will help: https://www.gottman.com/blog/d-is-for-defensiveness/
*Lastly, practice curiosity. Oftentimes in our romantic relationships we feel as though we really know our partner. They’re predictable. We know why they feel how they feel and what they do when they feel that way. So, we often behave or respond according to that assumption.
Example: My partner came home and threw his bag on the floor after a long day at the office. I immediately told myself “he had another bad day and he’s going to rant to me about how he hates his job” – so I didn’t say anything and kept cooking dinner, assuming that in due time he’d tell me all about what a jerk his boss was.
But sometimes, we are off. Something else has happened, but we don’t know because we haven’t asked. There’s something very beautiful about knowing someone so deeply, but when we lose curiosity about our partner and their experiences, we run the risk missing critical opportunities for connection.
Here are some ways to build a curiousity into our interactions with our partner:
“Is everything okay? You seem a bit down”
“I hear that I hurt your feelings. What was it about what I did that hurt? Can you tell me more?”
“What a rough day! How did you manage to get through?”
“That’s so interesting that you interpreted my reaction that way. What was it about what I said that was so hurtful?”
“What was it like for you to hear your best friend say that to you?”
You may be rolling your eyes as you read this. That’s okay. Try asking these questions to yourself internally for a while before you try vocalizing them to your partner. Curiosity gets lost in relationships for good reason – we feel safe and comfortable and our partner can feel like the trusty North star. Just as curiosity was one of the things early on that felt so good in your relationship, it can be the right prescription for healing fractured patterns of communication – especially hijacking. 🙂