Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument and wondered, “How did I get here?” Have you ever wondered, “How do I get out of here?”
Couples that fight are invariably couples that are locked in a cycle. One or both learned that having needs met by someone else meant you were weak, needy or somehow not okay. This may have been explicit or implicit. So instead of asking for help, support or understanding directly, they say or do something indirect.
For example, instead of saying, “I’m tired and I need help with the dishes”, they leave them in the sink or say something like, “why is it always my job to do the dishes?”, which puts their partner on the defensive.
In counseling, I encourage couples to speak make direct requests. They often squirm. Saying, “Honey, I don’t feel like doing the dishes, would you do them?” in a soft and gentle voice, is like asking them to leave their wallet on the sidewalk, its a huge risk.
More often a couple will say back, “She/He’s just going to say no, or tell me I’m being ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what I say. I’ve tried it every which way, and he/she always ends up pissed at me.”
Here is a couple I was working with that has been fighting like this for 15 years.
Therapist: “I wonder if either of you is wishing the other person would just shut up and listen?”
Couple: “Yes!” (They both say in unison.)
Therapist: “Excellent, we finally have some common ground! So each of you is feeling the same thing.”
Husband: “I guess I just want to fix the problem.”
Therapist: “And if you can’t fix it, then you push it away or withdraw?”
Therapist: “What is the worst part?”
Husband: “Her not hearing me.”
Therapist: “Yes, and what is the worst part about your wife not hearing you?”
Husband: “Her not caring about me.”
Therapist: “Yes, and what is the worst part about your wife not caring about you?”
Husband: “Her not seeing that I’m a good guy.”
Therapist: “When else have you felt this way, pushing those you love away, not being heard, not caring, not seeing your true character?”
Husband: “My father.”
Therapist: “Tell me about your father.”
Husband: “He always assumed the worst about me. When there was a mess in the house, he always came to me first and made me clean it up – even if it wasn’t my mess.”
Therapist: “What did he look like when he made you clean up?”
Husband: “Loud, angry, threatening.”
Therapist: “What did you want him to do instead?”
Husband: “I wanted him to love me, to know that I loved him. I wanted his approval more than anything. I wanted him to be proud of me.”
(He is tearing up. His wife’s expression has softened.)
Therapist: “What are you seeing in her eyes now?”
Husband: “She doesn’t care.”
Therapist: “That’s not what I’m seeing. What I see is more like tenderness. She looks… like she cares and I think it might be important for you to see that.”
Wife: “Yes I care! I never saw him like this before. I mean, I knew his dad could be an ass, but he always seemed like he just rolled with it.”
Therapist: “Like he was tough?”
Wife: “Yeah. He’s very tough.”
Therapist: “How did you learn to be tough?”
Husband: “I figured out pretty young that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from him, so I just stopped caring.”
Therapist: “What about you? How did you learn to be tough?”
Wife: “For me, it was growing up with brothers. If I didn’t act tough, they would call me baby, tease me, pinch me, that kind of thing.”
Therapist: “Toughness really protected both of you. But now, you’re paying a price for that protection. What do you really want from this relationship?”
Husband: “Understanding, tolerance, compassion”
Wife: “Yeah. That would be good.”
Therapist: “And if you felt compassion when you didn’t want to do the dishes, what would that sound like?”
Wife: “Babe, I’m wiped, could you do the dishes?”
Husband: “I’m wiped too. Maybe we could do them together?”
Therapist: “How does this feel?”.
Wife: “Much better”
Washing dishes image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 17 May 2014