In my work with couples, a common theme is that they are having the same fights over and over again. Typically, these arguments are not serious in nature, yet, over years of having the same disputes, the emotional intimacy begins to break down.
What is emotional intimacy?
It is the ability to be vulnerable and NOT have that vulnerability be met with a consequence. You see this among old friends in which you can reveal all your crazy, and they love and accept you anyway and typically laugh along with you about it. Think about when you first met and the months that followed. You were excited to speak to them and share your thoughts and experiences and ideologies and that connection was magical. That connection is the beginning of romantic love and emotional intimacy. THAT is the secret to lasting relationships. That connection and safety in being seen and heard for who you are.
Fast forward a few years, and the mundane chore of co-existing could begin to chip away at that connection and you find yourself not turning as often to one another for that support and emotional or intellectual intimacy.
Ah! If I could tell you the intensity behind my argument with my partner about the trash! Once a week, the trash is to be dragged to the end of the driveway to be picked up. I make sure what needs to be out of the house is out and the only responsibility of my partner… is to take it out of the garage and leave it to be picked up. I wake up, get the babies ready for school, get dressed for the day at work and don the stilettos. On a good day, I am running and stumbling with the book bags and lunches and my purse and their shoes and don’t impale the cats as I run through the door to the car and see that the kids are not tardy today! And as I am pulling out… there’s the garbage bin, still on the side of the house. Let’s imagine the colorful phone call he is about to receive. I relay the message for the 50th time that this is the only thing I need him to do on Tuesdays!! He responds back with fervent apologies and two options, either take out the trash myself (in my stilettos), or just leave it for next week, it’s not that big of a deal and he is tired of the nagging. The argument then escalated in a passionate attempt to be heard and understood by both parties.
Understanding the problem
This is where my job as the therapist (mediator and referee) becomes very difficult. Is it really about the trash? Is it really that he doesn’t care or he is lazy? Is it about rigidity? In all situations, there are two perspectives and both are accurate- let me say that again- both are accurate in their limited perceptions of the truth. The only way to overcome this particular obstacle and have any hope of keeping the connection intact is to try to understand what is behind the reaction of your partner.
Also watch: What Is a Relationship Conflict?
What is the big deal?
Not to just listen to generate your immaculate retort or to disintegrate their stance and justify your own. To genuinely comprehend what is behind the negative response and why they consider it a violation of their value. All negative responses occur as a result of a value that is perceived to have been violated. In this case, it is not the trash (albeit, it is literally full of feces, whether from a diaper or from the cats and will furthermore increase in intensity of foul odors if left for another week). It is about reliability and dependability. I am one who can do anything on my own if I needed to. I was to trust that I am not alone in this relationship and that I am able to rely on my partner and that he will follow through on his words because he is dependable. Those are the values when violated, will trigger a negative response. This is the case in ANY circumstance that I feel these values are not met. That’s how values work. From his perspective, he was running late and feels overwhelmed with his other responsibilities and therefore he needs understanding and compassion from his partner.
When assessed in this manner, are either party actively intended to minimize or dismiss the importance of the other? Absolutely not. Without the understanding of what is hidden under the conflict, this conflict will ensue and will manifest in a multitude of different circumstances and the result will be the same. Take the time to ask yourself and your partner, NOT what is the big deal, rather Why is this a big deal.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Habiba Jessica Tran is an experienced Professional Counselor. She helps people dealing with problems related to self growth, depression, anxiety, life transitions, grief, abuse, trauma and relationship struggles. She has a Masters degree in professional counseling from Georgia State University.