Couples in Conflict: How to Have Conversations, Not Confrontations
It’s been a while since they have agreed on anything. They still loved each other and wanted to figure it out. All they needed was a good conversation. In search of a connecting dialogue, they’ve come to a marriage counselor. Unfortunately, their initial therapy session ended up as a triumph of assumptions and accusations. So much was said in that hour that the distance between them felt unsurmountable. It was a tragedy of total misunderstanding and disconnect.
She was talking with agitation and intensity as if she had some invisible “keep going” sign in front of her. Words were fast and sharp. Sentences poured out and linked into paragraphs without intermissions. One could sense despair, frustration and pain. However, with the air in the room boiled by fury, her spouse could not connect, feeling spooked and terrified. She was shouting, reminding him about every way she had been wronged and failed by him. As if living in such agonizing circumstances was not bad enough, she was adding to their mutual pain by reliving each moment of his perceived transgressions in high volume and with screeching pitch. Her narrative was filled with acute judgement and accusations. Her mood, dark and powerful as a tornado, spread its dangerous swirls around him. All he could do was freeze and silently pray for safety.
Finally, she was drained of her anger. There was a brief pause in her intense monologue. He shyly took it as a cue for a conversation entry. He began talking, trying to explain his point of view, and perhaps apologize. However, after only a few seconds of listening, her face gained a peculiar look. The way you may look at your domesticated feline who just missed his litter box and made mess on the floor: “I know this is what you cats do once in a while, but hey, shouldn’t you know better?” This implicit judgement was subtle enough that she could not be called on it, yet tangible and impossible for him to overlook. The feelings that she silently conveyed were not lost on him: it was contempt infused with condescending love. This toxic mixture stopped him from talking. He began examining the brownish hues of my office carpet with such intensity as if some mystical answer, the cure for all of his marital ambiguities, was laying right there in front of him, in the acrylic threads. It was clear that he was done apologizing and explaining. He no longer felt safe.
More accusations and self serving claims were delivered in the remaining hour by both partners. There were also threats to leave the room, exit the relationship, as well as fire the counselor for the lack of effective interventions. If I did not know any better, I would think that I was visited by Shrek and the Wicked Witch of the West. That their problem is they belong to different tales, and the only solution is to release them to their separate kingdoms in search of a better match. But they were not mystical creatures. They were honest, caring people who occasionally shouted loudly and forgot to listen. People who loved each other but felt hurt and stuck.
Many lines were crossed in that single hour so it felt it could not get any worse. It was good in some way: having reached the threshold of interactional nastiness, yet desiring to stay together, left these two with no other choice but to figure out how to improve. Being in a dire need of mediation, therapy was a timely intervention for them. Some people think that therapists are for those who don’t know what to do. On the contrary, therapy can be very helpful to those who are quite knowledgeable and intelligent, but feeling overwhelmed and frustrated makes them overly focus on own violated needs and sense of hurt and ignore the ones of their partners. As a result, many couples struggle with stating problems clearly, putting blame and emotions aside, and begin to dialogue constructively and create solutions.
The couple scenario was an example of a simple but commonly forgotten thing: in conversation, the main goal is to repair and connect, not to accuse and blame. Verbal expression is good for healing, but can be a means of diversion. Words can be carrots, as well as sticks: they can connect or break relationships. The same goes for your body language: we can communicate things to others without words. The way you position body toward or away from partner, facial expressions, movement of your hands can all be silent yet powerful communication tools.
There was no resolution for this couple at war during their first few visits. But there was increased exhaustion, multiplied regrets, and a growing desire to stop hurting and make things better. These items did not complete the needed relationship repair toolkit, but they were good enough to start. Too tired to fight and play against each other, I hope their questions will increasingly include more of “we” and “us” reflections: What makes us suffer? What makes us better? How do we change? When it comes to “I” and “me” statements, I hope the search for self justice will include more of: What is it that I wish my partner understood about me and my needs, and how can I communicate this better?