“Let’s see if we can get to the root of the problem of what is really going on here,” is something I say frequently to the couples I counsel – almost every session. This is because most couples that come to therapy bring in their most current argument.
They want to describe disagreements over dirty dishes, housework, child-rearing, lack of sex, or the hurtful comment that made things worse. They want to debate timelines of who said what to whom, and in what order. “No! It was only after you said that that I said this.” “No, it wasn’t! You don’t remember half the things you say when you’re angry.” These are the kinds of comments I often hear, comments that usually just perpetuate the cycle and get the couple nowhere.
Getting to the root of an argument is like peeling back the layers of an onion. The deeper you go, the more tears you may shed, but the closer you get to the true core of the matter. First, let’s discuss the barriers that prevent the couple from being able to get to the root, and then we will discuss how to communicate those insights in a healthy way.
First, the couple may be upset, angry, or generally dysregulated. If this is the case, they are not working out of the part of their brain that allows them to engage their partner in a calm, curious, and caring way. They most likely are in a place of protecting themselves, and the way they cope with their feelings is guaranteed to perpetuate the disagreement.
For example, if one partner tends to shut down because they don’t want to make things worse, this sends a signal to the other partner that they are being shut out and rejected. In turn, the other partner might push for more discussion which will drive the original partner to shut down further, leaving the other one even more rejected and frustrated. At this point, no meaningful discussion will occur because both partners are triggered and in protection mode. The best thing to do is take a break and cool off. This allows each partner to slowly let down their walls and begin to see more clearly their individual roles in the disconnection.
Secondly, during the cooling period, the goal is the focus on self, not on your partner. The time must be spent in investigating what is going on internally with you. If you find you are more focused on what your partner did to you, or what they are feeling and thinking, you are still in a place of protection. Give yourself more time until you can focus on your own internal thoughts and feelings. Understanding why you got triggered, what feelings came up for you, the meaning behind the feelings, and putting the feelings into context helps you to be able to communicate your reactions during the disconnection or argument.
Communicating for Connection
After you have cooled off or become more emotionally regulated, then at some point you need to sit back down with your partner to discuss what happened. First, don’t assume just because you have cooled off that your partner is in the same place. Ask if they are ready to talk or if they need more time.
When you do begin to have discussions, each partner must focus on their role in the disagreement. They need to talk about their feelings and perceptions of what happened — not describe the other person’s behavior. Taking a self-focused approach to the discussion is the best way for your partner to hear what was going on inside you. Many couples fear discussing disagreements because they fear being triggered back into the same old argument with the same old feelings. Talking about what triggered you and the feelings behind it is the best way to prevent a relapse into the cycle.
Approach your partner’s feelings and perceptions with curiosity and concern. Remind yourself that you love this person, you want good things for them, and you want to support and encourage them to be the best version of themselves. If they do the same for you, ultimately both of you are growing together.
Ultimately, what really drives couple conflict is feeling a lack of support and care from your partner. It can start with a word or tone, but usually devolves into something that resembles feelings of rejection, abandonment, shame, or pain. Triggers, when put into context, can often lead back to past wounds that re-emerge in the current relationship along with fears that the worst will occur again. Getting to the root of the problem takes hard work, but the payoff is a relationship that grows, heals, nurtures, and encourages both partners to feel accepted for who they are.
- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO
Stonebridge Couples Therapy
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