Couples often come into my office reporting, “we had a heated argument over the silliest, most minor thing. It was how to load or unload the dishwasher correctly.”
When things spiral out of control, it’s really not about loading or unloading the dishwasher, or any other topic. It’s about the vulnerable feelings beneath, and the hurtful process involved in defending against expressing them. In other words, the undercurrent going on beneath the communication, also known as meta communication.
The problem is, we don’t talk about that process with our partner, and that is where the miscommunication happens. Below is an example of what this concept looks like if you both attend a party…. (the normal font is the actual spoken words; the italics behind the parentheses are what is being felt/thought, but unspoken)
Partner 1: You didn’t have to flat out ignore me at the party tonight (it felt like you didn’t want me around).
Partner 2: What do you want? Me to babysit you all night? (I feel criticized).
Partner 1: Of course not. But at least just acknowledge my existence. You were laughing and joking with everyone all night, but with me, you are always just a big grouch. (I wish I felt connected with you and important to you).
Partner 2: If you didn’t have fun at the party, it’s not my fault. You need to venture out on your own and talk to people too, like I do. (It feels like you think I’m a bad partner, and that hurts me).
Partner 1: Well, if you don’t want me around, I just won’t go next time and you can go by yourself and have a grand ol’ time (I want to feel connected with you, but instead I feel misunderstood.)
Partner 2: Well just don’t blame me if you didn’t have fun. (I want you to feel proud of me and supportive in this relationship instead of criticizing me).
Partner 1: Well, I’m going to bed!! (I miss you, I wish we could be close like we used to be, I feel misunderstood).
Partner 2: Fine! (I feel rejected and misunderstood).
During an argument, it isn’t always easy to access the parentheses. Yet, what’s behind the parentheses are vulnerable feelings that unlock what the argument is really about, unbeknownst to each partner.
Happy couples repair ruptures in their relationship. Rupture, and then repair. Part of the repairing means getting in touch with what the parentheses are for you, and taking the time to come together and communicating them to your partner. This practice will help you authentically express yourself to your partner closer and closer to real time. Allowing yourself to be more deeply seen in this way leads to higher emotional intimacy, which also improves physical intimacy.