Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, helps us understand how loss of connection can cause negative patterns that cause couples to feel stuck. Taken from her book, “Hold Me Tight,” we’ll look at the underlying issues beneath constant disagreements.
Have you ever wondered why do we keep fighting about the same thing over and over again? Well, as a couples therapist, I certainly have. The simplest answer to that one is: We fight about the same things over and over again because we want to be heard! (and if we haven’t been feeling heard, we will protest that).
For example, I will continue having the same fight with my husband about dirty dishes if dirty dishes represent that he really doesn’t care about what I care about (clean home). Ultimately, if he doesn’t care about what I care about, how can he care about ME? (By the way, it is possible not to care about the same things, but still feel cared for in a relationship…just saying!). So eventually, dirty dishes means he no longer cares. Well, that truth is hurtful and unacceptable to me (because I care and love him), so I will protest that truth each time dishes are not done…until he hears that my true upset is not about the dishes, but about my fear that he no longer cares about me.
With time, these fights get more and more upsetting to partners and they both feel more and more misunderstood, scared of creating yet another fight, and the protest might turn into a shut down.
In couple’s therapy, I often meet with people when they’re feeling frustrated, depleted, hopeless and helpless, to get past these recurring problematic themes but to no avail. I can see that these partners have made a valiant effort at trying to get to the bottom of the struggles. They approach it in various ways: pragmatically, leaving all emotion at the door, criticizing, threatening, saying nothing at all and holding it all in, problem solving, bargaining, etc. Often, they need additional help from a therapist to get into the bottom of the fights.
I highly recommend for couples to see a therapist sooner than later, so they don’t get burnt out by all the efforts, and feeling the constant disappointment and pain of the actual fight.
Essentially, the more disappointment and pain we experience in our relationships, and the more unheard or misunderstood that pain is, the more disconnected we start feeling from our partners, and the quicker we get triggered.
When couples reach this point, the what of any fight won’t matter anymore. It could be the bed not being made, a tone of a “hello” or forgetting to put the lid on the toothpaste. These seemingly trivial disagreements represent a lot more for each partner (THERAPY CAN HELP YOU FIGURE OUT WHAT EACH FIGHT REPRESENTS FOR YOU!). At this point, the entire relationship feels threatened and marked by resentment, caution, and distance (this is where the fight no longer is about the dishes or sex, but it is now about “you are never there for me” or “you don’t appreciate me.”) Further, partners tend to start to make negative assumptions about their partner’s intent (For example: “He is just lazy…if he weren’t, why wouldn’t he help me with dishes.” OR “She is just so mean and unappreciative!”) and that only adds into the relationship distress.
Unfortunately, this back and forth fighting usually has been going on for years before couples decide to come in for counseling. At the time of their arrival to my office, they feel a big deal of loneliness and hurt around being misunderstood. Each partner still desires closeness and connection but are too scared and well-defended to let down their protective walls because the pattern has become so automatic. At the heart of this pattern, couples are starving emotionally. This is why strategies to problem solve, time outs, avoidance or being mindful of communication styles aren’t effective—because these strategies don’t address the pain of being unheard or misunderstood or the fear of loosing each other.
In couple’s therapy, we work to slow things down so we can really understand what happens for one another in the heated exchange. Attachment theorist, John Bowlby has taught us that when our relationship attachment bells go off we have different ways that we respond. If we are feeling connected we are able to get through the conflict without feeling so threatened. But if we’re in an insecure place, we feel and respond as though there’s impending doom and danger.
In therapy, we help couples feel secure with each other again, so that it really becomes ONLY about the dishes and the unfinished dishes no longer mean that a partner is: not invested; doesn’t care; or is simply lazy.
We teach couples how to start responding to each other’s emotions in order to disarm the negative, repeating fights. We help couples slow things down so that softer emotions start to emerge like sadness, fear, embarrassment and shame. As that is happening, partners start seeing each other in a different light. Where they once saw anger they now see fear. Where they used to see their partner shutting down, they now see them hiding from shame and guilt. After all, softer emotions feel a lot less dangerous. Showing and responding to more tender emotions that are beneath our defensive reactions create a new type of conversation. A conversation that fosters understanding and empathy and a lot less blame and distance.
If you would like help with fostering new type of conversations so that you finally stop fighting about the same thing over and over again, call us today.
Written by Heather Talbot, LPC. Heather specializes in working with couples using Emotionally Focused Therapy. Heather welcomes your feedback!