The couples who come to see me to repair their relationship often tell me that they really don't understand why they are fighting all the time about seemingly small issues.
Helen, for example, complains that Ned "never" does the tasks around the house on time. "He said he would fix the cupboards by Wednesday, but he didn't do them till Thursday night" she repeats for the twentieth time. Ned tries to explain and defend himself and then gives up and lapses into silence. Frustrated by his silence, Helen begins again. Each states that the other is "too difficult."
They also suggest other reasons for their conflict; Ned sees a "power-struggle," while Helen sees believes that they are just too different to be compatible.
As the therapist, I see a different explanation. I see a pattern of frustrated demanding and distancing defense, which has taken over their relationship leaving them both feeling alone, rejected and abandoned. I ask them to see their behaviour as a loop that they are both responsible for and to not just focus on what their partner does to them. I tell them that we all get stuck in this particular spiral at times and that it is like a demon that eats relationships. They need to stand together to see how this demon makes them both unhappy.
Then I ask them to look a little deeper and really listen to each other. Helen realizes that she feels that Ned does not care about her emotions and seems to ignore the difficulties they are facing in the relationship. Her nagging about housework is her attempt to make him confront those larger issues. Ned, on the other hand, realizes that he does turn away from Helen because he feels like he can never please her. She always seems to be angry at him and so he shuts her out so that he doesn't have to face the pain of her harsh words. Helen talks about her fear of being deserted when she finds out that she doesn't matter to Ned, and Ned shares the pain of rejection he feels and how it makes him constantly wary of getting too close to Helen.
This couples start to recognize their pattern of disconnecting from each other and feel that they can help each other step out of it and learn to connect again. They can now explore their relationship and the impact they have on each other.
This is more than pragmatic agreement or a de-escalation of conflict. This is the beginning of safer connection. Each partner understands that criticism and shutting down and shutting a person out hurts the other one. In fact, this kind of emotional pain is coded in the same place in the brain as physical pain. Chronic fights are always about the pain of disconnection; after all, we are bonding animals who need closeness.
The next week, Helen tells me, "we have a name for our pattern — The Suspicion Spiral. I think Ned doesn't need me cause he is distant and he thinks I don't think he is good enough because I nag him. Last night, he said, 'we are in the SS thing — I don't want you to feel like I don't care,' and he put his arm around me." She beams; I guess they fixed the fight.
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