Reader Beware: This post is not intended for the quick fixers or the folks who find exploration of emotion boring!
The hardest psychological endeavor in the couples therapy process is the act of taking ownership for perceived hurtful behaviors to one’s partner. Seconds after a spouse expresses their feelings, with lightning speed, their partner launches a counter defense – faster than any sniper bullet. The roar of indignation – “Are you kidding?,” the fog of gaslighting – “Nope, never said that,” the flashpoint of “You do it too,” or the non-verbal cascades of eye rolling, smirking, twisting away or hands thrown up in the air, followed by “Really?” spill out like coins from a pocket full of holes. Videographers would have a field day filming all this in real time, and I’m sure they have – each transactional pushback takes mere seconds to tumble out of the mouth, flash across the face, fire away in energetic hand movements or even the occasional foot stomp on the floor.
All these behaviors are instantaneous, knee-jerked. The swiftness of the response reveals that this is old, patterned early, triggered by fear and fueled by adrenaline. A fight/flight response as fierce as that of any lioness warding off an hyena attack on a cub. What is happening here? Why is there is no time to pause, not a nanosecond to reflect, no inhalation taken while digesting the information except to mount a defense? Yet one does not see a human-eating tiger, an AR-15, a mud slide, or even a judge and jury. This is what we call a primitive response, wired into our species for millennium and upgraded to verbal language communication from the earlier grunts and clubbings of the stone age.
“Anything I reveal will be used as a weapon against me.” When spouses react to feedback from their partners with immediate distrust, they forgo an opportunity to learn something about themselves or to show interest in how their partner processed their shared situation. And equally important, they reveal real fear. Likely the feedback was shared with emotion conveyed by a tone of voice that sounded angry, hurt or frustrated, which sets off alarms for the listener. But should that nullify the potential usefulness and honesty of the feedback? This isn’t a game of “gotcha” – though that is what I often hear couples say; the “enemy” perspective. “That person who I married and with whom I share a home and likely children, is out to get me, outsmart me, prove he/she is better than me. That’s why they said that.” This belief is deeply felt, a conviction that isn’t easily challenged. Yet this very conviction creates confusion, yields distorted projections and often re-enacts a dance from an earlier developmental phase that is in need of an update; re-choreographed and understood in maturity and in sync with the current partner, not a ghost of partners or significant others past.
Here’s where the ownership dynamic enters into the Coupledom. What keeps couples from being willing to consider, simply consider, that their behavior may have played some role in, or caused discomfort, pain or confusion for, their partner? Why is the onslaught of counter-attacks, denials, or justifications the go-to response? Is this Playground Combat, dare to taunt me, I’ll double taunt you back? Will we ever grow up?
Psychological growth is not easy and often not in lockstep with the maturing of other human abilities, such as earning a living and running a home. Couples are prone to react to remnants left from earlier years of sibling combat or parent/child hierarchical battles, even while they are now grown up peers with their partners and have clocked a couple decades beyond their teens.
What induces a fight/flight reactivity in couples is hidden deep inside their child selves. Child development moves in step with the evolving brain. And for many years that brain and its child, are busy – in a fairly black and white fashion – sorting out right from wrong, good from bad, happy from sad, safe from dangerous. And no sorting is more important or challenging than that of the identity of the self – the self-image. If I’m not good, then I’m bad; if I’m not pleasing then I’m unlovable. With the increased dependency on peers, the black and white motif shifts from the risks of displeasing or losing mom and dad’s affection or approval to that of peers; “No one will like me; out of the sandbox, exiled from the lunch bunch.” Humiliated and rejected. Unfortunately, the primitive or reptilian nature of our reactions lies buried deep in an unconscious place in our brains, making it hard to retrieve and separate out early fears from the unfolding story in the now. Short of having a spouse who turns to violence, most of the threats triggered by Coupledom frictions are psychological in nature, and though raised voices and harsh glances jack up the adrenaline, there is no stampeding elephant in the room and adults, even if “abandoned,” can manage on their own in the “wild.” Yet our primitive database collapses time and place, and when a spouse shares feelings or relates their version of an interaction gone badly, sirens pierce the psyche of their partner who counterattacks with an arsenal of words. If humans breathed fire, words would tumble out like torches and ashes would pile up in heaps on the Coupledom floor.
The hot button phenomenon seen in volatile Coupledoms tends to originate in early relationships, often from childhood, and may lie dormant until stimulated by the intense inter-dependency of the Coupledom. When adults behave like children, that signals that something old has been triggered and a regressive response ensues. Yet when you slow the stories down, bring a therapeutic microscope to the transactions, what stands out most prominently is the plethora of misguided notions, projections and unintentional distortions that make the interpersonal terrain swampy, almost impassable – a quicksand-like mix that should be treated with curiosity, patience, and a willingness to wear each other’s boots for a bit to wade through it to solid, safe ground.
Ownership of responsibility is not a declaration of worthlessness and no-goodness. Ownership is not a whole hog response either. If a partner listens to their spouse’s description of a bad moment or moments and allows the experience to settle in, upon reflection, elements of the interaction can be owned as a mistake, others may reveal themselves as confusion that needs clarification and all can be treated respectfully and with empathy. There is an important and often unidentified fear in most that one risks the loss of their reality if they feel empathy for their partner’s experience in a conflictual exchange. That is a fear which likely has its roots in early development and has distorted what empathy is – not a loss of self, but the recognition of the reality of the self of another. Not one subsumed under the other, or sacrificed to maintain a relationship with the other. That’s the primitive fusion solution. One reality fits all. Two realities can co-exist and find empathy for that difference. Two skins are walked in and two hearts beat, not one.
The process of unpacking the beliefs and notions behind any of these volatile interactions requires a willingness to work on slowing down the reactivity; doing a look back in the moment – what was said and what was heard or not; learning to observe each other’s facial expressions and body movements with curiosity rather than fear or hurt. Since the most destructive interactions are patterned, predictable, repetitive and compulsive – each one, when broken down, can stand for the many before and likely the temptation for more going forward. Couples can learn to do this in therapy first, if they can consider, for a moment, that they may not always know what their spouse is thinking or feeling about many things, including themselves.
The assumptions that riddle most relationships and fuel high friction exchanges are themselves riddled with potholes. Think about all the variables involved in even the simplest of transactions: stylistic differences are huge; one verbalizes; one internalizes. Think of the daily rituals that are likely to set off conflict: morning and evening comings and goings; bedding down for the night; errands and chores; socializing with other couples; travel strains and children problems. Add to the stylistic differences and the complex tasks of daily living that couples have to negotiate alongside deeply buried files of the past that can trigger the fight/flight response and you have a recipe for alienation, distortion and domestic warfare.
Like disentangling a badly knotted garden hose, time and patience are essential. A marriage, unlike a garden hose, is not so easy to toss out and replace. And the cost is astronomical for all.
The therapy environment can be a forum for risk taking; for staying the impulse to fight off the “attack;” substituting listening and waiting for debating and denying; trying on for size the act of hearing and self-reflecting.
Picture this: your spouse is describing a pretty rotten interaction between the two of you. Your heart is beating fast; your face feels flushed; visions are blazing in your head – and you just picked up your favorite weapon, words! J’accuse. You dare to accuse me, well, en garde!
Or picture this: your spouse is describing a pretty rotten interaction between the two of you. Your heart is beating; your face feels flushed; visions are blazing in your head – but you didn’t pick up your favorite weapon, words. You listened. Then you listened again. Then you thought, reflected. Then you said, “I think I understand.” Or, “I don’t think I fully understand. Can I ask you some questions. I want to understand.” Then, “Now I understand how what I did could feel so bad and be so hurtful to you.” “I’m sorry. I don’t think I ever realized fully how hurtful that must be for you.”
Next round – you describe a pretty rotten interaction between the two of you. Your partner listens. Your partner reflects. Your partner says “I think I understand.” Or, your partner says, “I don’t think I understand. Can I ask you some questions? I want to understand.” Then your partner says, “Now I understand how what I did could feel so bad. I’m sorry. I don’t think I ever realized fully how hurtful that must be for you.”
Hurting someone isn’t the great offense. Not owning it is. Whether intentional, a mistake, or a misunderstanding, just own that something your partner experienced with you, hurt them. And with that, own being capable of hurting someone else, even if you didn’t mean it or did mean it. If you did mean it, then there is a reason and that needs to be understood. Either way, this is normal. We hurt each other. What skews and poisons the simplicity of that truth is the denial of the other’s experience, and the primitive belief that if you say, yes I did hurt you, that means you have confessed to being bad, unlovable and in danger of abandonment. Nope. Not. Grownups are programmed to understand the complexity of life and the grey in human interactions. However, the child inside may still be working with the black or white color chart of self. The grownup self needs to step in – we’re all the same, human, capable of error and gifted with the ability to say yes, I did that and I’m sorry and now let us learn how to be better together.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2020