There is no correlation in how frequently you and your partner fight and how emotionally fulfilled you are or can be in the relationship.
It is the way you disagree, argue, and together face difficult issues, not the fact that you do, that makes the difference. You might also simply say there are good ways and bad ways to be married, a coming together of two people with different histories, thoughts, feelings, needs, and inclinations.
Of course, couples do not just fight over differences and disagreements. As a therapist, I have borne witness to couples in the throes of apocalyptic marital dramas unfolding in the wake of affairs and all manner of aggressions and anguish. Whatever the backdrop, the first priorities are always increasing safety and civility.
Hard & Soft Emotions
Keep in mind that what we feel does not necessarily dictate what we emote. In other words, emotions are the way we express our feelings, and, although we seem quite automated in moments of duress, there are always countless options for translating those feelings into presence.
Keith Sanford at Baylor University has studied the ways that partners perceive one another’s emotions during the midst of conflict. Sanford categorized emotions correlated most closely with power, hard, and those most closely associated with vulnerability, soft. Sanford also looked at moderating concerns underlying the emotions themselves revolving around perceptions either of threat or neglect.
Basically—and acronymically—emotions are “hard” when there is perceived hubris, apathy, rage, or disrespect, and emotions are “soft” when there is perceived sincerity, openness, faithfulness, and tact.
When you perceive your partner as hostile, critical, blaming, or controlling, hard emotions increase in response to perceived threat. When you believe your partner has failed to make a necessary contribution or demonstrate sufficient investment in the relationship, hard emotions increase in response to perceived neglect.
Sanford instructed, “What you perceive your partner to be feeling influences different types of thoughts, feelings and reactions in yourself, whether or not what you perceive is actually correct.”
Connection Over Correction
Obstinate perceptions are entangled with gnarly emotions on the field of battle. One couple came into session wielding weapons of war. The husband complained that when they argued, he felt “mad and insignificant” and characterized his role within the marriage as a “little kid.” His wife shared her own emotional experience of the word-to-word combat, saying “I feel betrayed,” quickly adding, “I feel guilty.”
Later this wife shared that she had woken up, rolled over, and kissed him on the cheek and said, “Good morning!” He had given her an annoyed look in a split-second response, failing to reciprocate. In that moment, upon perceiving rejection, she had felt herself immediately become reactive and prickly. And then round and round they both went for hours, and thankfully they brought it all right into session so we could encounter the emotion together.
They both agreed that their automatic reflex is to react and to defend. I challenged both of them that in order to move forward, they must calm their inner voices and emotional reflexes when there is an attempt from their partner to confess, correct, or connect, that they must increasingly learn to tolerate disappointment and disagreement in the absence of validation.
One evening, the husband confessed to her that he knows he has put her through the emotional ringer yet that he loves her and is glad that they are moving forward together. His wife said that she felt validated that evening. I attempted to focus more on and, thereby, amplify their focus on that connection. They had already been working to calm strong impulses to aggress or withdraw in reaction to perceptions of threat or neglect, and perhaps this would help turn the tide.
The perceived provocations and failures of the ones we love have power to overwhelm us and paralyze intimacy. Family therapist Terry Real has said, “Too often we move from personal disempowerment to personal empowerment. We must learn to cultivate relational empowerment.”
Marriage Takes Courage
The husband shared he believed counseling had become a safe place to be raw and vulnerable together and that perhaps they had been battling less out-of-session lately because they don’t yet feel skilled enough to prevent the vicious cycle from being triggered. I challenged that perhaps they have been more skilled than they realized in managing their reactions and maximizing opportunities for connection. They had reported doing both well over the past week.
Emotional knee-jerks kick vulnerable private parts, and our sense of safety as well as trust pulsates at every retort. The more we accuse or defend, the less we feel heard, understood, or appreciated, and the more we feel judged, belittled, and rejected. Our peace is as fragile as our pride is impenetrable.
Yet Ted Huston, professor of human ecology at the University of Texas, has studied predictors of divorce and concluded, “When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.”
Sometimes the fighting is a sign of vitality rather than despair or resignation in relationships. We must dig in where we have opportunity to cultivate the good in our relationships. We can catalyze love through our words, time, acts, touch, and gifts. And we can wrestle to understand as we argue. When empathy is experienced, togetherness is more likely to be experienced, even in conflict.
Sue Johnson, one of the leading experts in the field of couples therapy, has written this of fighting couples, “Both are terrified; they are just dealing with it differently. Trouble is, once they start this blame-distance loop, it confirms all their fears and adds to their sense of isolation.” We must acknowledge the perpetual risk of our fights becoming self-propelling motors and self-fulfilling prophecies.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard captured a striking truth, “Such is the way a man always acquires courage; when one fears a greater danger, it is as though the other did not exist.”
Get over the idea you’re going to find the perfect mate. At the risk of joy and fate, we must grow together along an arc of affection, responsiveness, and civility, gaining marital agility in order to be the perfect mate. With irritation conjoined with self-doubt and anger with fear and shame, our hurt keeps us on watch for slights and provocations, yet we never lose our capacity to choose, to act in spite of the anxiety rather than at its whim. May we learn a better way, and may we be the change we wish to see in our marriage.
Previously published on LinkedIn
Huston, T., Caughlin, J., Houts, R., Smith, S., & George, L. (2001). The connubial crucible: Newlywed years as predictors of marital delight, distress, and divorce. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 237-252.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The sickness unto death: A Christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening (H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1849)
Real, T. (2011, March 18). The new rules of marriage. Worldwide teleconference: GoodTherapy.org.
Sanford, K. (2007). Hard and soft emotion during conflict: Investigating married couples and other relationships. Personal Relationships, 14, 65-90.
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