Relationships morph. Predictably there is a point in a marriage where things start to feel different. Two people who love one another and have lived together for years no longer feel heard. Arguments are more about winning than resolution. Soon even a trivial item like taking out the trash triggers a battle. The couple is stuck in a communication breakdown, unaware of how they got there, and without the tools to fix it.
You and your spouse have a disagreement. You are committed to being right. You stand your ground no matter the consequences in your relationship. By default, you withdraw or become silent waiting for your partner to apologize. Later on, you regret behaving like this. You yearn for the lost love, affection, and respect. You crave the good old days when you felt taken care of and listened to. But it’s too late! No matter how hard you try or what you do, all communication escalates into a battle.
After working with hundreds of clients in therapy sessions, I can see a pattern when couples enter the turning point phase of their relationship. Let’s take a look at Tim and Joanne:
Tim and Joanne are chitchatting while reading the Sunday paper when Joanne announces: “Tim, remember you’re taking Sammie to his karate lesson. He needs to be there in two hours. Please don’t forget.”
“Well, I told you I’m spending three hours with my buddy from New York. I told you this ages ago.” Tim shrugs, without lifting his head from the newspaper.
Joanne, clearly agitated says, “You never said a word! You know I have to visit my mom, or did you forget? Who’s taking Sammie to karate? I can’t do it!”
“I don’t know.” Tim calmly replies. “Maybe you can call the babysitter.”
At this point, Joanne is thinking: Here we go again. I can’t rely on Tim for anything. Whenever I make plans with my family, something always comes up. He hates my family. He expects me to drop everything every time he snaps his fingers. Why can’t he remember anything?!
Tim is thinking: Drama queen! What’s the big deal? Why doesn’t she just call the damn babysitter and deal with it? Can’t I even have one afternoon with an old friend?!
Over time these internal monologs take on meaning. Joanne believes that Tim is out to sabotage her relationship with her mom. Tim concludes that he and Joanne can’t talk about anything because it leads to a fight. He withdraws and says nothing. These internal thoughts shape our marriage; we react differently to our partners. Anger, resentment, and defiance set in and become our automatic way of being in the relationship. Body language is loud and clear, and predictable. She speaks: He tenses scoffs and retreats. He speaks: She scowls, makes a snarky remark, and pouts. They are stuck.
The best way for a couple to get unstuck is to learn how to talk about what they are thinking when their conversations go south. If they can create a safe space to talk, realize that they share the same goals, and agree that both spouses will be listened to and heard, they have taken the first step in breaking up the cycle. A useful tool is to ask your partner: “When I asked you that question a moment ago, what were you saying to yourself?” You’ve diffused the trigger response of being defiant and made room for developing the skill of being open.
Step two is to keep talking! Dive deeper into their internal thoughts. Encourage dialogue: “Tell me more.” Paraphrase what you heard them say: “So you were feeling this and thinking that.” This approach gets to the heart of making your partner feel heard. It moves you past having to be right. Give it a try. Your conversations will be both productive and worth having.