All couples disagree, most argue, and some slug it out with words day after day. Thomas Fiffer reveals the real source of discord, how it escalates to conflict, and how to stop it from derailing your relationship.
“You never understand me, John. You never know what I want. I tell you, but you don’t listen. It’s always all about you. You’re just an insensitive jerk.”
“Jane, I bust my butt every day for you. And you never appreciate it. You’re always on my case, criticizing me, telling me I don’t do enough, make enough, making me feel inadequate, comparing me to our friends.”
“You know, John, without me you’d be nothing. I’m the best thing that ever happened to you. You’ll never find a woman like me, and once you realize that, maybe you’ll start treating me better.”
“Look, Jane, what do you want me to do? I’ve apologized a hundred times already. You bring up these old hurts, every time you’re upset with me. You sound like a broken record. I said I was sorry. Now can’t we be done with it?”
It’s sooooo aggravating. John and Jane are both reasonably, maybe even super-intelligent people. They love each other. They may parent together. And yet they can’t seem to resolve a disagreement, or even agree to disagree and move on? Why? Because they’re both defending untenable positions that don’t address the underlying issues plaguing their relationship. These issues hide below the surface and, like a drop of acid added to water, convert disagreement into conflict. “But wait!” John says. “That’s NOT the problem. The problem is, I’m right and Jane’s is wrong. She never listens.” “If only John would understand,” Jane counters. “If only I could convince him.” Think again. They’re both wrong—not necessarily in logical terms—but in their approach to the conflict and the behavior patterns they’ve developed to deal with it. If John and Jane sound familiar to you, read on.
When I first started seeing my therapist and complaining about the things my ex-wife and I fought about, he shared some electrifying words with me that changed my entire understanding of the conflict in my marriage. He said, “Pay no attention to the content.” My first reaction was outrage. “What? Don’t pay attention to what I’m hearing? But she said . . .” And you’re probably thinking the same thing. “I’m supposed to ignore my partner’s outrageous statements, lies or misrepresentations, insults and inaccuracies, the ‘you never’ and ‘you always’ sentences that spell the death of healthy communication? Yes, I’m telling you to ignore the content, the words themselves, as well as the situation or issue that precipitated the argument. Because none of that is important, and none of it is relevant to what’s actually happening. Here’s why. When partners engage in endless, unresolvable conflict, the conflict is about feelings, not what triggered those feelings. This truth becomes clear after a while, because as the relationship progresses, more and more incidents trigger the same feelings, and things that didn’t incite a reaction in earlier days become flash points for bitter fights and even violent rage. And when rage sets in, there’s no hope for resolution.
The real cause of conflict is lost intimacy
The feelings that underlie endless conflict are generally hurt, disappointment, betrayal, deprivation, abandonment, or loneliness, or wrapped into a bundle—not feeling loved. When we’re thirsty we go for our favorite drink, and if it’s not available, we’ll take water. If we’re stuck in the desert, we’re grateful for the drops of moisture found inside a cactus, and if we’re desperate, we’ll drink our own urine to stay alive. When we’re thirsty for love, we go for our favorite source of love, our partner. But if our partner is unavailable for emotional or sexual intimacy, we look for a substitute. Not a substitute partner—though that may eventually occur if things get dire. A substitute for intimacy. And what does a better job of getting us eye to eye and toe to toe, right in each other’s faces, and gives us an opportunity to show just how intimately we know our partner, than a fight? We become aroused, passionate. Things get hot. And silence, if it’s plaguing the relationship in the form of withholding, is broken as words—cruel and insensitive ones perhaps—but still, words, are finally exchanged. Put another way, a fish will swim away from a hook, because a hook means pain and possibly death. But bait? Bait means food. And food means life, so bait is tempting. So one partner baits the other—with a statement, often hostile, that is difficult to ignore. The other partner reacts, and the fight is on. Suddenly, you’re thrashing wildly as you’re being reeled in again to the endless argument. It is not always one partner who does the baiting, because both crave intimacy and each is just as likely to start a conflict, consciously or not, to achieve a semblance of closeness.
It’s the feelings, stupid
When a young child is upset, the child often blubbers and babbles. Words don’t form, because the brain is overloaded with emotion and the cognitive circuits are fried. But we understand instantly from tone and expression that the child is in distress. The same thing happens with the endless argument, only it occurs between adults. One partner feels hurt, disappointed, betrayed, deprived, abandoned, lonely, or all of the above, and the intensity of these painful feelings overloads the parts of the brain that manage communication. It’s the way you feel when you just want to scream. In addition, while the other partner’s action or inaction may have triggered these painful feelings, they often relate to wounds from the first one’s past relationships or childhood that the other neither caused nor is capable of healing. Unable to identify the source of the upset, the angry partner focuses on his or her mate as the target and relieves the intense emotional discomfort by blaming him or her for something—anything—convenient. It doesn’t matter that the couple may have been over this particular issue time and time again. The issue is not the point; it’s a place holder for emotions. The words are meaningless, but the emotions are real. If you focus on the words, you grow intensely frustrated with your partner’s irrational, non-constructive behavior of confronting you with an issue you thought you had resolved. Your reaction feeds the cycle of the endless argument, because no logical counter you can offer will lessen the pain your partner is experiencing. When is the last time an argument ever changed a feeling?
Hurt is inevitable; it’s how we handle it
Feelings of hurt, disappointment, betrayal, deprivation, and abandonment make intimacy impossible, because they block trust. Once we realize our partner is capable of hurting us deeply—a natural condition of intimacy—we become afraid it will happen again. We put up walls, grow defensive and aloof, distance ourselves from our partners to protect our egos and our feelings, and soon enough loneliness sets in. Real intimacy requires risk, and most partners are risk averse in relationships, especially those who suffered deep hurts in previous partnerships or in childhood. It is a truth universally acknowledged that at some time or another, your partner will hurt you. This is a fact of being in relationships. The key to healthy relationships is how we handle being hurt, along with recognizing whether the pain being caused is intentional or not. It hurts just as much if it isn’t intentional, but it’s easier to forgive if it isn’t. It may, however, not be easier to correct, because if your partner isn’t aware he or she is hurting you, that awareness must precede corrective action. If your partner is aware of hurting you and intentionally continues, it’s not a relationship but an abusive situation, and you would serve yourself well by seeking counseling as to why you’re still in it. If you love each other and want to stop fighting, you need to realize that when we feel hurt, being right, being vindicated, soothes it, even if being right comes at the expense and pain of our partner, someone we love. That’s why insisting on being right is wrong, and being right is not an inalienable right but an alienating behavior.
The endless argument is so much easier to start than a dialogue about the lack of trust or the feelings that underlie it that partners fall into the destructive routine of fighting to replace the intimacy they have lost and would like to regain. Breaking your dependence on fighting to achieve intimacy is crucial to restoring the health of your relationship.
Ignore the content and stop the fight
This simple trick for contributing partners helps you ignore the content and break the devastating cycle of the endless argument. First, strip away the words. Listen to the tone, the pitch, the rhythm of your partner’s voice, humming quietly along with it to block out the actual words being spoken. When your partner is done speaking, say something like, “You know, that’s really terrible, and I’d like to help. Can you tell me in one word what emotion you’re feeling right now?” Often the answer will be, “anger.” If it is, you can follow with, “Can you identify in one or two words the source of your anger?” Your partner is likely to say this is you. Here’s where you work your magic. Help your partner understand that a person can’t be the cause of anger or any other emotion, that emotions such as anger are our reactions to actions or words. “OK, so I’m angry with what you said (or did).”
Now, here’s the hard part—accept your partner’s anger. Accept that it exists and is real. Then, explain to your partner that anger is a secondary emotion, a feeling that floods us after we experience primary emotions such as hurt, fear, rejection, or humiliation. Ask your partner if he or she can identify the feeling that came just before the anger. If, for example, it’s hurt, you can say, “I’m sorry you feel hurt. Let’s talk about where that feeling is coming from.” By taking charge and shifting the dynamic, you begin to guide your partner away from the quick fix of relieving pain by blaming you and towards the pain’s true source. The response you encounter may be, “Well, I feel hurt whenever you talk to your mother on the phone,” or “Every time you come home late I feel abandoned.” If you can slip out from under feeling blamed and responsible for your partner’s feelings, you can engage in a more constructive dialogue focused on intent. A statement such as, “I didn’t intend to hurt you by calling my mother or coming home late” joins the two of you in an effort to avoid the hurt and improve the relationship. This can be followed with, “How can we handle this situation going forward to avoid your feeling hurt?”
Functional communication is intimate and sexy
Earlier in this chapter, I explained how arguing serves as a substitute for intimacy. When partners can’t connect in a healthy way, when the thrill of romance and the easy flow of love are gone, they often resort to fighting to restore a measure of closeness. And fighting, in its own way, can be sexy, especially if the kiss and make up part follows. But in truth, there’s nothing closer and more intimate than being in complete agreement with your partner, being in sync and on the same page, and there’s nothing sexier than the security of knowing you can always talk to your partner about anything and not get blindsided, ambushed, or slammed. Lines connect at a point, and for partners to connect, there must be a point of connection—a shared perception, perspective, principle, or goal. This can be as simple as the desire for peace and harmony in the home and the relationship, and the commitment to work to make that a reality.
Here are some examples of functional communication around typical issues that dysfunctional couples fight about in the endless argument.
“I’ve been putting it off and need to call my mother about dinner on Sunday. It’s important to me that we go, but I know you have feelings about it. Would you like to talk about it so we can get on the same page before I call?”
This statement acknowledges that your partner has an issue with seeing your family or your relationship with your mother and offers a conciliatory gesture in advance of an action you are aware could be triggering.
“When you didn’t call me all day today from work, I felt really lonely. I’m sure you were busy, and I understand. Now that you’re home, maybe we can relax and catch up, talk a little about my day—and yours?”
This statement establishes hurt feelings then quickly transforms them into a request for intimacy. Instead of closing the door with an attack, it opens the door for an apology that your partner knows will be accepted and creates an opportunity for restoring connection and trust.
“When you don’t discipline Dylan and make me the heavy, I feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under me. I know we both disapprove of his behavior, and we both want him to change it, but we’ll be stronger as parents and he’ll be better off, too, if we can support each other when it comes to discipline.”
This statement expresses the feeling of abandonment while at the same time extending a bridge to your partner on the issue of discipline. It also suggests a way forward that doesn’t blame the child’s behavior on the more indulgent parent.
You may not think of these suggested exchanges as the best way to get your partner into the bedroom, but they sure beat a fight that ends up with only one of you in the bed and the other on the couch.