The Imaginary Fight: Distance in Couple Arguments

Many couples feel as if they get locked into a certain dynamic or repetitive pattern in their relationship. This pattern seems to play out during times of stress or conflict, and it often lurks under the surface of the conversation and out of awareness of both partners.  This pattern comes with feelings of anxiety, guilt and sometimes shame – though they are never acknowledged or spoken of. These patterns may have been present from the beginning of the relationship, or they may have developed during times of crises at transition points in the relationship cycle. These patterns can take many forms – this particular post is about the pattern of distance in the relationship, what I term the imaginary fight.

The scene looks like this: both partners are discussing something that they are emotionally invested in – let’s say how to handle little Timmy’s temper tantrums. As the partners start to disagree and feel the tension rise between them, they both begin to pull away from the conversation – first emotionally, then verbally. As one partner pulls away, so does the other, until eventually they both go to their neutral corners without a word spoken. Both partners are reacting to what they think the other is feeling, but since the fight has ultimately been avoided, neither stays in the conversation long enough to find out. Then for the next few hours or even days, both respond to the other as if the argument never existed, yet both are disconnected from one another and feel the strain.

Patterns of distance in relationships occur for many reasons. One spouse may have fears of abandonment, the other fears of being smothered. Perhaps these fears were developed in their family of origin and did not originate in the couple; however, these fears are never talked about since neither partner can tolerate enough tension in the relationship long enough to discuss them.

What makes this pattern so difficult for the couple is that they never feel like they can resolve any issues in the relationship. All tension gets internalized and the argument takes place in the imagination of the partners. The tension is never spoken of, the wants and needs of the partners are never expressed, and ultimately the issues are never resolved and the relationship never feels like it moves forward.

Breaking patterns is not easy, especially ones that are not always cognizant to the couple. In patterns of distance though, the couple needs to enact 2 rules in order to break this negative cycle.

First, they need to create a higher tolerance for tension between them. One way to do this is to take 15 minutes a night to discuss certain issues in the relationship. By having a time limit they can desensitize themselves to the rising anxiety, but also know it will not be overwhelming because of the time limit. Eventually reaching a place where they can tolerate more tension in the relationship, enough to stay connected and express their wants and needs.

Second, they need to learn the rupture repair cycle is a normal part of any relationship. As couples have conflict, they don’t always resolve the conflict in one sitting, or one conversation. But what’s most important is when a rupture occurs, is to come back together to repair the relationship. Usually, this entails some apologies for things said, acknowledgement of feelings hurt, and some clarification for the misunderstanding of what each partner what thinking and feeling.

Inevitably, if the couple learns to tolerate an increase of tension in the relationship, this will automatically lead to a better repair of any ruptures. Ultimately, the couple learns how to negotiate differences, how to soothe one another during times of strife, and how to stay connected during times of misattunement, so that arguments do not take place in the imagination, but rather are worked out between the partners with words of validation and encouragement.

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