Brian and Maggie came into my office for couples counseling. It was the first session. They both initially looked tired, yet when they began speaking, they came alive. In fact, they became animated. They seemed to disagree about everything. Maggie wanted to come in for counseling, Brian didn’t. Maggie felt that they had a major problem, Brian thought what they were experiencing was normal.
Brian then began to talk about how, no matter what he does, Maggie finds fault with it. He was feeling belittled, criticized, and completely unappreciated. But instead of exposing his more vulnerable feelings of being hurt, he said, with his voice rising,
“You always take me for granted. You don’t give a s**t about me. All you care about is making sure you’re taken care of. You have a list of complaints a mile…”
(Maggie had in fact brought a sheet of paper with notes written on both sides – a list, she later admitted, of everything that Brian was doing wrong).
As Brian spoke, I registered Maggie’s discomfort. She shifted her position on the chair, shook her head No, and rolled her eyes, telegraphing her disagreement to me. She discreetly folded the piece of paper and put it in her purse. But when she couldn’t take it anymore, she interrupted him.
“Why do you always yell at me? You know I hate it when you raise your voice. It scares me and makes me want to run away from you.If you didn’t yell I wouldn’t criticize you. And when you…”
I noticed Brian shift his body away from hers. He looked up at the ceiling. He looked at his watch. As I patiently listened to her side of the story, he would occasionally glance at me, but it felt more like a glare.
“I’m not raising my voice,” Brian protested. “But I can’t get through to you unless I get loud enough to…”
It was me who interrupted this time. I said, “Is this how it goes at home?” They both nodded, meekly. I told them that I let them go on for a bit in order to assess their communication style. Brian insisted that they didn’t have a communication problem. Maggie immediately countered that they do.I said that interrupting was the one thing they would need to refrain from, and I was about to add another point as Brian interrupted me.
“You’re not in touch with reality at all Maggie. You’re always making something out of nothing.”
With only a few minutes into the session, I realized that Brian and Maggie had their work cut out for them. I already knew that it was going to take us a while to help them be less reactive, change the way they treat each other, and find common ground in order to obtain mutually agreeable solutions to their many problems.
It’s been my experience that couples like Brian and Maggie are treating each other with a lack of respect, a steadfast refusal to see each other’s point of view, and a high degree of defensiveness, to the point of what I call “attack -defend-counterattack” communication. It’s not about the issues or what I call the “story line.” The issues were endless – the reasons for their epic battles were about something else.
How do couples get to this place?
There are many ways that you can find yourself in this kind of situation. Perhaps it’s not as dramatic and seemingly intractable – but maybe you’re in a relationship that has too much criticism, not enough closeness, not enough sex, and too much emotional distance.
Since the focus of this article is on how to go from here, I want to answer the question briefly and to set the stage for making the necessary changes to have a fulfilling relationship. Not one person – not one – goes into a relationship thinking that this is where s/he’ll end up. The first weeks and months of most relationships are filled with hope and expectations. It might be filled with lots of talking/texting, loads of compliments, and frequent, fulfilling sexual encounters.
Just as sure as I am that nobody thinks, “I’m going to live unhappily ever after” I’m equally certain that you and your partner will have conflict. Even couples who “never fight” have conflict, and here’s why:
Conflict exists before the first word is spoken about something. If you want to see your family for the holidays but your partner wants to go to the beach, you have a conflict.
Where couples often get into trouble is in how they try to resolve the conflict. It is not uncommon for couples to get into “power struggles” which I define as “Who’s way are we going to do this: My way or yours?” In the extreme, name-calling, yelling, the Silent Treatment, and even violence are ways to force your partner to adopt your point of view and way of doing something.
There’s a theme that can emerge that I call “Who’s the crazy one here? And it’s not me!” in which each person in the relationship refuses to accept the other person’s point of view as rational or even possible.
The role of emotional regulation
What I noticed with Brian and Maggie even in the first few minutes of the session – squirming, head nodding No, eye rolling, and frequent interrupting – was that each of them were objecting SO strongly to what the other person was saying that their feelings of anger, self-righteousness, and hurt were rising to the point of being overwhelmed. Each of them NEEDED to refute the other person to release themselves from the death grip of these overwhelming, anxious feelings.
After nearly 25 years of providing therapy, I have come to believe (more and more strongly) that we human beings are constant emotional managers. Every moment of every day, we are regulating our emotional world as we try to live well through our days, be productive in our jobs, and live with a modicum of happiness and contentment in our relationships.
To digress for a moment – a lot – emotional regulation, which is simply the ability to remain at least somewhat calm in the face of conflict or other stressful situations – begins in infancy. The notion of what psychology researchers once thought of as self-regulation (a baby can and should calm himself or herself down) has been replaced with the notion of mutual regulation – if Mommy or Daddy can remain calm in the midst of a baby meltdown, the baby will self-regulate. Even if Mommy or Daddy becomes anxious in the face of a fussy/angry/screaming baby, as the baby regulates, the parent can re-regulate to the point where the baby can re-regulate.
Unfortunately, because most of our parents weren’t expert emotional managers, they couldn’t teach us what they didn’t learn. Many of us had parents with a dismissive parenting style (“It’s only a shot – stop crying!”), helicoptering/intrusive/domineering style (“It’s 8pm, where’s my 23 year old son?”), a spoiling style (“I don’t want my kids to hate me so I give them everything”), and even an abusive style (“I’ll give you something to cry about,” “you’ll never amount to anything,” along with physical violence, screaming, and neglect). The unifying principle behind all of these styles is our parents are trying to regulate their own feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, anger, and so on. And equally unfortunately, we have trouble regulating (soothing) ourselves and can react quickly to any sort of threat.
Likewise, what Brian and Maggie were trying to do was to self-regulate. All of the verbal and nonverbal communication to each other and to me had the goal of gaining control in the face of helplessness, sanity in a world that at the moment made no sense at (“s/he’s crazy!”) and releasing the pain and suffering that was occurring not only in the moment but throughout the relationship.
As a sidenote, this last point can explain why a “small thing” to one partner is a big thing to the other. Every communication has a context of every former conversation and disagreement. Maggie wasn’t creating a mountain out of a molehill, as Brian had suggested. In fact, the mountain was already created and the latest affront was simply the last shovel of dirt.
The other side note I want to mention is that all behavior between two consenting adults is an Agreement. In other words, this situation was co-created. There’s no right or wrong, no one at fault (but boy, do couples blame each other!), and no One Way to find relationship harmony.
So, where to from here?
So, where can you and your partner go from here? Sometimes, the situations are so volatile and out of control that a third party (a therapist) is required. But if you’re not to the point where you are hyperreactive to each other and yet you could pretty much script out your arguments because they’re so predictable, here are 7 ways to find common ground, regain intimacy, and find more contentment:
Allow each other to finish your thoughts
This point cannot be emphasized enough, and it’s why it is the Number One recommendation.
When you interrupt, it means that you’re formulating a response to what your partner is saying. In other words, you’re no longer listening. You’re trying to regulate your emotions by making a counterpoint or gaining the upper hand. Bite your lip. Sit on your hands. But most importantly: Breathe. Do whatever it takes to listen to your partner.
And if your anger is to the point where you aren’t listening, ask your partner to take a short break. Admit that you aren’t listening because your anger is in the way. Tell him or her that you want to listen but that at the moment you can’t. When you sense that your anger has subsided (from 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 to a 2 or 3), ask your partner to resume.
I realize that this is counter-reflexive (if we’re feeling attacked, we want to defend ourselves), but if nothing else can convince you, maybe this will: Notice that when you defend yourself, your partner will frequently use your response as more ammunition. So, defending yourself will not work. It will just turn up the heat.
Accept your partner’s point of view as his/her reality
No matter how crazy it sounds, implausible it seems, or ridiculous you think it is, it is essential to accept that your partner’s point of view is as valid as your own. We all distort the truth and mis-recall events, especially if there’s an emotional charge attached to the experience.
See “conflict” differently
Saying that you are afraid of conflict actually misses the point. As I mentioned earlier, conflict exists before the first word is spoken. What you’re actually afraid of are highly uncomfortable feelings – being hurt, rejected, humiliated, or belittled (among others).
Instead, accept that conflict exists and that the problems you’re having relate may to how you’re trying to resolve them. As a related point, always try to stick to the subject. If you see the argument veering off in a different direction, try to bring it back to the original subject. Even if it gets personal, you can say something like, “We can talk about that later. Right now we’re talking about ______ .”
Recognize that love is overrated while compatibility is underrated
In Dr. Aaron Beck’s seminal book, Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy, the book’s title explains this idea.
As a couple, you should naturally strive for a loving relationship. However, I have learned that love and compatibility or two different things. And the basis of compatibility is cooperation. Are you willing to say “Yes dear” about 50% of the time when your partner asks you to do something you’re not thrilled about – but you do so anyway to please your partner?
If you’re compatible, you and your partner should be in agreement about 80% of the time about most things. If you split the difference, you have your way 10% of the remaining time and your partner has 10%. That means that you each have your way 90% of the time (pretty good percentages in my book). If you’re in agreement 2/3 of the time or less, it’s time to look at just how compatible you are in terms of values, lifestyle, and outlook.
Understand that your partner is not here to fulfill your needs
While some need fulfillment is perfectly natural – for companionship, having a family, and so on –recognize that your partner is not here to meet your needs. You should also be meeting your needs through work, friends, a fulfilling hobby, volunteering, etc.
If you tell your partner that “you’re not meeting my needs,” think about what you’re actually saying to this person. Take a look inside to see if perhaps you’re being demanding or unreasonable.
Treat your partner like a dog (yes, a dog!)
When I have suggested this idea in treatment, many couples balk. “Like a dog??” Well, here’s the explanation. In short, many people treat their dogs better than their partners!
Here’s the longer version. How does every legitimate dog trainer tell you how to train your dog? Through positive reinforcement.
Punishment only leads to the punishee avoiding the punisher. Have you given your partner the Silent Treatment? Have you purposely withheld anything from a text to sex? These actions are types of punishment. And so is criticism. Many people find criticism to be emotionally distancing and punitive.
Remember the old adage “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?” Here’s my Rule of Thumb for a good relationship in this regard: for every one criticism, mention four or five positive things that your partner does to and for you. Remember to say Thank you when s/he does something you appreciate.
Your partner will be happier and more satisfied in the relationship if you offer positive reinforcement in these ways. And so will you.