Lisa and Jim (not real names) were in my therapy office falling into the same pattern again. Lisa was frustrated because she had been fixing a light in their living room. She asked Jim for help to reach something. He ended up taking over the whole project. She felt so hurt and angry about this.
Jim felt like he was doing something helpful by taking over. He feels hurt because he says Lisa doesn’t appreciate when he does things for her. After a few minutes they are practically screaming at each other about what the other person was doing wrong. They were bringing up stuff from the past and trying to convince the other person why they were right.
I believe they were both crying out to be understood, but this fact gets lost in all relationships when we feel defensive and hurt by our partner. In this example both Lisa and Jim are getting stuck on proving to each other who is right. In my experience with couples, when the conversation becomes about who is right, it gets further and further from being helpful.
We think that if we can just convince our partner that we are right, then they will understand how they hurt us. In another example from a therapy session, Carrie blamed Fred for yelling at their child’s teacher. She came out with guns blazing, “I can’t believe what a jerk you were to her.” Fred replied, “I was not. Someone needed to talk to her and I think I got her attention.”
Before the incident Fred reported that Carrie had just been telling him how frustrated she was with that teacher. Once they were able to slow down and listen to each other, they could begin to show some understanding that neither one of them was trying to be hurtful towards each other.
John Gottman’s research shows that when couples fight or argue it is common for one or both of them to get into a state of emotional flooding. Once your heart rate increases by 15-20% it is time to take a break, slow down, and relax before continuing the conversation.
When our bodies get flooded with stress hormones it makes it very difficult to resolve conflict rationally. When we are in this heightened state we are more likely to react rather than respond in a loving way.
In the first example with Lisa and Jim, once they were able to let their defenses down, they were much more able to talk in a constructive way. Lisa was able to explain that she feels excluded by Jim when he takes over a project. It makes her feel like they aren’t sharing their life together and this scares her.
Jim was able to hear this and validate what she was talking about. He then told her that when he tries to do things for her and she gets mad or doesn’t notice he feels like she doesn’t need him and this makes him afraid that she will eventually leave him.
They both care about each other so much and don’t want to lose each other, but end up arguing and yelling at each other instead of slowing down and taking advantage of a valuable moment to connect.
Shane Birkel is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Dover, NH. He offers therapy with individuals and couples from the Seacoast of New Hampshire on relationship issues.