Ask the Therapist: How NOT to have the same argument over and over and over…
By: Ted Harro
Our friend, Pat, wrote a while back asking how a couple might catch themselves as a fight is starting and interrupt a conflict before it gets out of hand. I finally caught up with The Therapist to have a chat about that.
You mostly see couples who have some kind of conflict. You’ve had to deconstruct more arguments than the average bear.
You have a really hard job, don’t you?
I do! *Big smile*
(Awkward pause) Ummm…. You kind of have to be a sick person to want to do that all of the time. That’s sounds so hard I think I’d stab myself in the eye with a fork.
Yeah, but it’s also easy because I know the pattern I’m going to see.
OK! (Sigh of relief) That’s what I wanted to ask you about. A couple comes to see you for the first time. They’re not coming because they’re ecstatic with each other. Sadly. They think they’re coming in to talk about a fight. What do you know that they don’t know?
I know that there is a pattern to their arguments. It’s repetitive. They think they have many arguments. I know they have basically the same argument many times.
How many possible conflict patterns are there?
Well, there are three possible patterns, but there’s generally one pattern for each couple.
About 99% of the couples who come to see me have a Pursue-Withdraw pattern.
Oh, wait. That’s our pattern too! So we’re just a boring old normal couple?
(Shrug) Well, I guess so.
Since I’m the Withdrawer in our relationship, I don’t want to talk about that. (Changing the topic) So how do you find the pattern for a particular couple?
I ask them about their story. I want to get the fly on the wall view of their pattern. What would I see if I were present, watching one of their arguments? Then I’m also looking for the emotions underneath their actions that drive the pattern.
I know what I’m looking for. Often, one person is not feeling important to their partner. They’re protesting. That’s the Pursuer.
The other person who’s on the receiving end of the pursuit generally feels like they’ll never get it right with the pursuing partner. They’re going to get it wrong. They’re looking for calm. That person is the Withdrawer.
And who wouldn’t want calm? I mean, really. That Withdrawer sounds really reasonable to me. But back to our “fictitious couple.” What does the couple think they’re coming to talk about when they first come to see you?
Often, one person has identified the other person as the problem. They’re coming to get help fixing that partner or to help the partner see where they’re doing something wrong.
And the other partner is pretty elated to be there, right? He can barely contain himself. Not that I know anything about that.
Yeah. Not really.
My goal is to help them both realize that they’ve created this pattern together. Rather than seeing each other as adversaries, they need to join forces to interrupt the negative pattern and change it to a more positive pattern.
So the pattern is the problem?
How do you help the couple get behind the story to the underlying causes?
I help them figure out the story they’re telling themselves and what they’re feeling underneath that story. A client recently told me that I go” all Sherlock Holmes on people,” as I try to help them understand what’s going on. We use a series of questions to help get underneath the fear or sadness. We end up doing a collaborative discovery of the emotions driving the behavior – emotions that they’re not aware of.
When does the lightbulb go on? Can you give us an example?
Here’s a story I’ve heard many times: A couple is having conflict over how to handle teenage children. One of them wants to set higher expectations. The other doesn’t. And they fight about it. Sometimes in front of the kids. Which is, to use a clinical term, bad.
When we talk about this, there can be a moment when the more lenient parent says, “I get really angry because of my fear that, if you keep this up, our kids won’t want to come home when they’re adults.”
But that fear comes out as, “Don’t talk to the kids that way!!”
Meanwhile, the other partner may be feeling afraid that if they don’t say something to their kids, the children won’t be prepared for the outside world. They’ll get a job, face real expectations, and fail.
And then end up living at home in the basement?
Something like that.
So I’m trying to unearth those fears and motivations. The aha happens when they start to understand the emotions that drive the behavior. They can start saying, “I didn’t know that was your fear!” Next time they face something like this at home, they can say, “I’m getting anxious about how you’re interacting with the kids.” And do it offline, not in front of the kids.
If left unchecked, what happens to these fights?
Well, arguments are a lot like fires. If you let them burn out of control, they can engulf the whole relationship.
You mentioned that your goal is to help a couple interrupt the pattern before it turns into a big fight. Once a couple recognizes their pattern, what can they do about interrupting it?
The first step is to help the couple change their focus from the content of the argument to how they feel as they argue. When you can slow down and find the emotion underneath the frustration (usually sadness or fear), it can help you change the focus from the surface issue to what you really need from your partner.
After doing a few “post-game analyses” of their fights, couples can usually identify what they tell themselves in the argument and even the early physical signs that they’re getting triggered.
With some practice, couples can notice those warning signals and the triggers as they come up. That allows them to say something like, “I’m starting to feel anxious. I don’t feel like you’re hearing me. I need us to slow down.” Or something like that. Then the partner can tune in, recognize that there’s more than meets the eye in the conversation, slow down, and give full attention to what’s happening between them.
It’s a way of dousing the fire before it gets out of control.
There you go talking about physical signals of emotions. I was getting that tingly little nervous feeling in my elbow that you were going to bring that up.
If that tingly feeling could talk, what would it say? *Big smile*