Sometimes I'll see a couple who communicate primarily by arguing. The gloves are on, the fight is waiting to happen. Their normal posture is to be either on the defense or offense. It's a competition and somebody has to be right.
Take a fictional couple, Jack and Jill. They're in marital therapy. They're very uncomfortable expressing affection to one another (although sex isn't a problem, this is a passionate couple). Both of them grew up in homes where parents used a time-honored right to break things (dishes, walls) to demonstrate feelings. J. & J. learned that when someone crosses you, you react, and react fast and aggressively to win. That way your feelings won't get hurt.
You don't, actually, need to grow up in a conflictual home to be a person who reacts rather than responds under stress, but it helps.
It’s been snowing in Chicago. Jack shoveled after last week's snowstorm until his back hurt and he had to stop. Jill managed to find the spot he missed. She fell on the ice and blamed him. But luckily, Jill falls well.
Jack (walks in the door at the end of his long, stressful day at work): Yo, darling.And they’re off.
Jill: You (expletive)!! I almost broke my neck out there on the ice. You didn’t shovel very well!
Jack: Why you ungrateful (blanking) (blank)! At least I tried. I did a lot. You did nothing!
Jill: A lot of good your effort was to me.
Jack: Well, (blank) you!
Jill: Back ach’a!
What’s this? Is it merely that they’re uncomfortable with intimacy that they'll say anything to avoid it?
Yes, that's true. But they're still starved for it, they still want love and intimacy, like most conflictual couples. And they'll profess to do whatever it takes to develop an intimate relationship. That's why they're in marital therapy. That's why they do well in marital therapy . This is where individual therapy is called for, too.
These two let loose on one another out of fear, but also out of habit. Habits are hard to break.
They also lacked loving role models, corny as that sounds. Conflict was the rule in both families, not affection. Their parents demonstrated good behavior outside of the home, at work or with other couples, just like Jack and Jill are a model couple on the outside.
And they never learned how to be assertive, obviously. They'll err on the side of passivity (sometimes) with authority figures and friends, then take it out on the family or the family dog.
The Jacks and Jills feel their emotions bubbling over before the key hits the door. Having held their tongues all day long, when they're with the people they love, when they're comfortable, ironically, they let loose.
I've heard a million times, "Where else am I supposed to let off steam?"
What does Jill really want from Jack? Not his steam.
She wants him to show her that he cares about her.
What does he want from her? The same.
In this case, Jill wants Jack to say, "Ah, honey, are you okay? Let me take a good look at you. Let me ice your boo boo’s, kiss it where it hurts. I’m so sorry. I must have missed a spot. Are you okay?!?!”
She wants him to show concern. She needs that. But it comes out wrong. It comes out as a blame statement: YOU missed a spot!
And he doesn't patiently take the hit and say, "OMG."
Had their families modeled Affection Speak things might have been different. Affection Speak sounds something like this:
Try Jill greets Jack at the end of the day after they have both faced multiple stressors:
Jill (quick peck on the cheek): Jack! How ARE you? Come on in, give me your coat. I made us some dinner.Obviously that’s the way we’re supposed to talk to one another at the end of the day. Why else are we married if not to support, nurture, and engage each other in caring conversations? The job, ALWAYS, is to make the OTHER person feel good, not bad.
(Okay, it’s a little on the traditional side. If you want, switch genders, add genders, subtract genders, do what you want, I don’t care).
Jack: Ah, honey, that’s so sweet. I love ya’. I had a heck of a day.
Jill: Me, too. And guess what?
Jill: I narrowly missed breaking my neck on the ice. This looks like it’s going to be a
Jack (concerned): Where? What happened? Are you okay?
Jill: Right in front of our house! I fell, but I’m okay.
(notice, she doesn’t blame him)
Jack: Aw, man! I must have missed a spot. I feel terrible!
Jill: Oh, please, I could have thrown a little salt out there. I’m not a baby.
Jack (taking her chin in her hand, looking into her eyes): Are you okay?
Jill: As long as I’m with you, I’m fine.
Jack: You’re sure?
Jill: I’m sure.
That's the basic point of marital therapy.
That means no blame. Even if you blame him/her in your head, you don’t say so. Did you notice how Jack owned the responsibility for not shoveling when he wasn't blamed? Had she said, “You idiot, it’s your fault that I fell because you did a slacker job!” he would have felt he had the right to say, “Ef you, you blank!”
Not very productive, not very loving. We feel their pain.
So you tell me. Why WOULDN’T a couple want to go with Affection Speak, given the chance, and there's always the chance!
Mainly because a couple like this is really afraid of intimacy (as their parents before them) in this case, probably reflecting a fear of rejection or abandonment, but it could be a fear of suffocation, engulfment, merger, all kinds of weird psychological stuff. Better to reject first than to be rejected, suffocated, engulfed, etc.
Yes, it's as you armchair psychologists out there suspected. Strike first.
If a couple like this starts good relationship therapy then we work on those intimacy fears. And we can work behaviorally to stop the conflict.
I start with the idea of responding versus reacting. Reacting is a knee jerk thing, a reflex, like when the doctor hits your knee with that rubber hammer to check your reflexes. It’s automatic, not thought out in the least. Reactions just happen.
Responding is thoughtful. A person THINKS before responding, strategizes, plans out what he/she thinks will be the best way to phrase something. I personally like to do it this way. I LABEL PROBLEMS. Of course, I went to school for this.
I would call this Affection Speak. No assignations of blame. All we hear is (1) a statement of a problem, (2) a call to discussion, (3) brain storming for a solution. You work together, two heads are better than one. You come to a decent alternative. You can do that if it's not a competition or you simply can't bring yourself to sharing your head space (too intimate).
Me: FD? We have a problem here. Do you have a minute or should we talk later?
FD: Now’s fine. What’s up?
Me: I think we need to buy more or better salt. I’m afraid people might get hurt on our sidewalk. I almost fell today. Scared the living daylights out of me.
FD: You okay?
Me: Sure. You know I’m an excellent faller.
FD: Much experience.
FD: I think we have some salt in the crawl space. Lemme check before either of us runs out to buy it.
Me: You’re my hero.
FD: I know.
I could easily have greeted FD with anger. I could easily have yelled at him.
FD! What WERE you thinking! You shoveled but you didn’t salt and you missed some spots and I almost broke my freaking neck! And you KNOW our health insurance deductible is $10,000 dollars!
That would have been a reaction.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are an adult. By now you want to be above reactivity. Reactive is what lions do. Reacting is what pit bulls do. They eat their prey. You want to RESPOND, talk awhile, think it out.
Responding means defining the problem and asking for help with the solution. You stand shoulder to shoulder. It's better than facing life on your own. Why else get married? Why commit? Why bother? What do singles miss, after all, if not support, caring, tenderness and warmth?
When marriages bite the dust, no one misses the conflict. Everyone misses the warm bod' in the winter.
People who grow up with conflict err on the side of familiarity, thinking the significant other will be okay with it. Why? I don't know. My guess is that since 99% of our behavior really is unconscious, we simply choose social defaults. Unlearning the defaults is the ticket.
Being verbally affectionate, careful, and caring. That's not as easy as it sounds. It's risky. If I say I love you, you may say, Well, I sure don't love you. That would be terrible. But that's what I mean when I'm talking about fear of intimacy and rejection. It's possible. It can happen.
So the job is to make the communication process conscious, to stop, think, strategize, and determine how to say what you want to say without blame. Define the problem in such a way that your partner will want to help you fix it. Engage with sincerity and confidence that if the two of you put your heads together, there’s nothing that is irreconcilable, not even loss-- over time, of course.
It's true that even if you personally learn to respond, that there's no guarantee that your partner will also. Even when you are patient, even when you do edit, things can go sour. But it's worth it to try to communicate clearly without blame. It's worth the risk. It's worth setting the example. Your partner, if tested, might just respond positively to your positive communication.
Somebody has to make the first move. If you can't make the first move, or if you know it's futile, there's still no excuse for putting your partner on the defense. No good can come of that.
Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc