She Said He Said: We argue about everything now
She Said He Said
Dear Jeff and Lori,
My husband and I are having significant communication problems. From the beginning of our relationship we’ve struggled with talking about a few specific issues, but our relationship has devolved to arguing over just about everything now. We love each other and want to continue building a life together, but can’t seem to get out of this cycle. We both acknowledge being part of the problem and neither of us wants to hurt the other. We’ve tried therapy in the past and were encouraged to use communication tools including “I feel statements,” taking time outs and reflective listening, but as much as each of us wants to do better, we keep repeating the same patterns. When we’re not arguing, our connection feels strong. What are other tools we can use to communicate better and have more consistent ease in our relationship?
Lori and Jeff: It saddens us when couples seek professional help and the support they’re given is either inadequate or difficult to integrate. These partners, despite trying their best, often feel like they’ve failed, and/or come to believe that professional help is useless. When frequent conflict has become the norm, communication tools don’t work. Without broader insight, they’re like trying to save a sinking ship with a pail. But the good news is that with a deeper understanding of what’s underneath the conflict, you can create successful change.
Tension, bickering and arguing are usually symptoms of more significant issues. To change communication patterns, partners need solid awareness of what’s actually happening emotionally for each of them. The model we’ve developed for working with clients is called Functional Love. As functional medicine identifies and attends to the root cause of diseases, Functional Love creates sustainable change by addressing the whole system, not just the symptoms.
Lori: Improving communication is a bigger topic than 800 words can address, but we can provide a starting place. We conceptualize communication as happening on two levels: above the line and below the line. Above the line is informational content, including who said or did what, whose job it is, how much money and how many hours. Below the line are the thoughts, feelings, fears, vulnerabilities and stories that each partner has associated with the topic at hand. Most conflicts between long-term couples are driven by what is below the line.
The concept of stories is worth delving into for a moment. We often don’t react to what is actually happening; we react to our interpretations of what is occurring. Partners who have been together for more than a few months will undoubtedly have stories about one another. Stories are not necessarily fiction, but rather the narratives we create in our minds in an effort to feel like we understand what is happening. We attribute intentions and meanings to our partner’s words, behaviors and patterns, then react from that narrative. Typically our stories about our partner have two or three main themes such as: he’s selfish, she never listens, he’s irresponsible, she doesn’t care. Any time there’s ambiguity about your partner’s words or actions, your story will jump in to fill in the gap. When this happens, you become blinded to what’s really true for your partner as well as how you might be contributing to the conflict.
Jeff: Simply relying on communication tools does not consider what each partner is bringing to the table from their past experiences, both from childhood and from previous relationships. Functional Love addresses this dynamic by creating a deeper understandings of the whole person—both individually and relationally.
One key element to this increased awareness is understanding our own (and our partner’s) attachment patterns. These patterns are the fight or flight responses to perceived emotional risks and dangers that we developed throughout our childhoods. Most of us have carried these patterns into our adult lives and they often manifest subconsciously when we detect emotional instability in our relationships. These protective patterns tend to bring out the worst in us, like a teenage tantrum expressed through an adult’s body. Physical tension, yelling, name calling, shutting down, and physically withdrawing are all signs that a partner is in full protection mode. An added challenge is that in most couples, partners have significantly different protective patterns, making it difficult to understand what the other is experiencing.
By having awareness of these protective patterns, we can cultivate more patience and compassion, creating more space to have a generous interpretation of our partner’s behavior. Perhaps even more importantly, we can recognize that many of the negative stories we create about them are based on what we see when they’re in a protective state and not how or who they are authentically at the core.
Jeff and Lori: Functional Love is the wholistic integration of awareness and action — relationships cannot be sustainable without both. Using this approach, and understanding the below the line dynamics in a conflict or disagreement leads to less reactivity and defensiveness. Relationships will always have moments of conflict, but Functional Love helps significantly reduce the intensity and duration of those moments so that a deeper connection can be created and nurtured over time.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.