Every intimate relationship has to find its balance of harmony, conflict, calm, and passion if it is going to bring those involved mostly benefit. “Mostly benefit” may not sound so thrilling, yet it is a worthwhile goal. Every partnership has its low moments. Every human connection has some form of conflict at some point. Every relationship has its own complex actions and reactions based on the partners involved. To get through the difficult parts with a sense of safety and intact love and benevolence toward each other is a win. This is what I would describe as “mostly benefit”: even with some conflict, there is a foundation of love and goodwill that you share.
Seeing the process underneath the content
I am passionate about working with couples because studying these interactions and identifying ways that conflict can be minimized and love can be amplified is fulfilling and inspiring. What feels so catastrophic to intimate partners during a serious conflict doesn’t frighten me as the therapist in the room, because from the outside I can see the intensity of the love between the partners… and also the subtext of the conflict. I can help to slow down the interaction and untangle the words describing the content of the argument- the topic being discussed- from the tone of voice, the body language, and the emotion expressed that all comprise the process of how the disagreement is being conducted.
If we’re going to get to the root of the discussion in a conflict, we need to focus on the process. The content that couples arrive to discuss is short-lived in the therapy room, because pretty quickly we get underneath it. What are the emotional needs that are really being negotiated here? (To feel heard? To know you are trusted… or your partner is trustworthy?) What resentments are not being spoken directly, but are being broadcast in tone and posture? (The affair that was swept under the rug? The time she brushed off your grief when you needed support?)
Introductory skills for uncovering process
It is very helpful to have a marriage and family therapist in the room when you are having these conversations, but if you feel safe and stable enough in your relationship and your communication skills, you can support each other to do the same thing when a conflict arises at home.
Here are some tips that will subtly shift focus to the process of your disagreement, rather than the content.
- Slow your conversation down. Instead of thinking about what you will say in response to your partner, listen to your partner.
- When your partner finishes speaking to a point, repeat, in your own words, what he or she just shared with you.
- Look for the feeling or the emotional need under your partner’s words. If your partner hasn’t explicitly stated a feeling or need, you can elicit his or her help in identifying it.
- Above all else, be kind. This is not a war. You are on the same team.
Here is an example with just one person trying these strategies, still with beneficial outcome:
“I asked you to pick up my sister on your way across town, but you just arrived without her. I swear that you never listen to what I’m saying.”
“You asked me to pick up your sister and I forgot. You feel like I never listen to you.”
“That’s right. And now my sister’s waiting for you and our family meal is ruined.”
“You went to all this trouble to plan a family meal and now it’s ruined because I forgot part of the family!”
“You’re an asshole.”
“YES, I’m angry!”
“You need me to be better at keeping my commitments.”
“Yeah, it would be nice to be able to depend on you now and then.”
“You need me to be dependable.”
“I’m sorry that I let you down today. I don’t want you to feel like this. Can we have a small snack now and put dinner in the oven while I go get your sister? Is it too late for a do-over tonight?”
“We’ll be eating after 8pm… but I would prefer that than not having dinner together at all.”
“Okay, can you text her that I’m on my way?”
Notice that the partner who is trying to make peace here is not engaging in a dialogue about the content their partner is introducing. Yes, they are repeating the content to let their partner know they heard it… but they aren’t evaluating the legitimacy of the content nor offering alternative perspectives. This person reflected back to their partner what they heard (“You feel like I never listen to you,”) rather than answering the statement (“I never listen to you?? What about yesterday, when I made those two phone calls you asked me to make??”)
Reaching out for extra help
This type of communicating is a lot easier if both parties are on board, and even easier when working with a therapist. But it’s never “easy” at first. This is because the vast, vast majority of us are in the habit of ignoring the process of our communicating and simply addressing the content. It feels very unnatural to not respond to the content and to instead address the feelings underneath the words. It feels unnatural to step up into a role of support for our partner to express their emotions and needs, even when that partner may be stuck in blaming or negative communication patterns. This is actually a skill that parents can use to help their children learn language that identifies their feelings and helps them to get their needs met. Since many of us did not have parents who taught us these skills, we have the task of learning them as adults.
In addition to being in the habit of only looking at a conversation’s content, most of us become defensive when the person to whom we are closest brings up criticisms about us. It takes repeated experiences of safety with our partner to trust that a critique today is just that… not a sign that our partner thinks we are permanently defective or would rather be with someone else.
The kind of conversation I’m describing will not be successful for some couples. If the baseline sense of safety is not there, or if both partners are not invested in moving past your habitual conflict patterns, this will likely fall flat. In that case, I really do recommend considering a couples’ counselor. When you discuss the counselor’s style before becoming his or her client, look for someone who can articulate using this type of dialogue. It is sometimes called emotionally-focused therapy.
Whether you are ready to jump in at home and try what I’m suggesting, or you are ready to find the help of a marriage and family therapist who can guide this type of communication, I wish you the best!
Important skills you are strengthening: