Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument and wondered, “how did I get here?” Have you ever wondered, “How do I get out of here?”
Couples that fight are invariably couples that are locked in a shame cycle. One of both of you learned that having needs meant you were weak, needy or somehow not okay. This may have been explicit or implicit. So instead of asking for help, support or understanding directly, you say or do something indirect. Instead of saying, I’m tired and I need help with the dishes, you leave them in the sink or say something like, “why is it always my job to do the dishes?” which puts your partner on the defensive.
When I coach couples to speak from a more direct place, they often squirm. Saying, “Honey, I don’t feel like doing dishes, would you do them?” in a soft and gentle voice feels like a huge risk.
“He’s just going to say no, or tell me I’m being ridiculous.” I hear.
“Let’s try it,” I say, “and if his response is mean or defensive, maybe we can help him out.
“It doesn’t matter what I say. I’ve tried it every which way, and she always ends up pissed at me.” He says.
This is a very discouraged, tired and lonely couple, and their feelings are contagious. I can feel myself wanting to tell them both to just shut the f up and do what I say. Not particularly therapeutic. But I know that the feelings I’m having are not mine. I know that I am resonating with their experience, feeling what they are feeling.
“I wonder if either of you is wishing the other person would just shut up and listen to you?”
“Yes!” They both say in unison. And we finally have some common ground!
“So each of you is feeling the same thing!?” I ask, though it’s more observation than question.
“I guess,” one or the other offers tentatively.
“Where do you feel this wish in your body?” I ask the one who guesses.
“In my arms,” he says, pushing the air in front of him.
“And you?” I ask the other.
“Same,” she says, pushing the air too.
“Wow, so you are both feeling the same thing and your bodies are holding it in the same way. There is so much resonance between you!” They don’t respond. They are not ready to feel what they share.
“What are you pushing away?” I ask him.
If it stops there, she is left feeling like the bad guy. But I know he doesn’t want to push her away. They’ve been fighting like this for 15 years. If either wanted it to end, it would have ended by now.
“Yes, and what aspect of her are you pushing away.”
“Her not hearing me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not caring about me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not seeing that I’m a good guy.”
His voice has a little tremor, a little emotion in it. I look at her, and she is not seeing the vulnerability. She is lost in feeling criticized. I stay with him, but keep an eye on her.
“Stay with this experience, pushing away her not hearing, not caring, not seeing you. Where else have you felt this in your life?” I encourage.
“My father.” He says.
“Tell me about your father.”
“He always assumed the worst about me. When there was a mess in the house, he always came to me first and made me clean it up – even if it wasn’t my mess.”
“What did he look like when he made you clean up?”
“Mean, angry, fed up with me.”
“What did you want him to feel about you?”
“I wanted him to love me, to know that I loved him. I wanted his approval more than anything. I wanted him to be proud of me.” He is tearing up. His wife’s expression has softened.
“What are you seeing in her eyes now?” I ask, nudging him to look up at her.
His face stays downcast and he says, “She doesn’t care.” And in this moment, he could easily drive away the compassion she is feeling for him.
“That’s not what I’m seeing.” I say to him, but hoping that my words will help keep her from hardening again. “What I see is more like tenderness, (her face softens again) and I think it might be important for you to see that.”
He looks up, searching. She has heard me, and stays soft to him. “She looks… like she cares?” He says, surprised.
“Do you?” I ask her.
“Yes I care! I never saw him like this before. I mean, I knew his dad could be an ass, but he always seemed like he just rolled with it.”
“Like he was tough?” I ask.
“Yeah. He’s very tough.”
“How did you learn to be tough?” I ask him.
“I figured out pretty young that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from him, so I just stopped caring.”
“What about you?” I turn to her, “How did you learn to be tough?” since she is too.
“For me, it was growing up with brothers. If I didn’t act tough, they would call me baby, tease me, pinch me, that kind of thing.”
“Toughness really protected both of you,” I say. And they both nod. “But now, you’re paying a price for that protection.” I continue, and they nod some more, each still looking in the other one’s eyes. “What do you really want to experience together?” I ask.
“Tenderness,” he says.
“Yeah. That would be good,” she says.
“And if you felt tenderness when you didn’t want to do the dishes, what would that sound like?” I ask.
“Babe, I’m wiped, could you do the dishes?” she says, looking tenderly at him.
“I’m wiped too. Maybe we could do them together?” he offers.
“How does this feel?” I ask.
“Better,” he says.
“Much better,” she agrees.
There are so many tiny moments when an argument can either spiral downward or upward. When we grow up shamed, we tend to look away right at the moment when our partner is offering a look of care or concern. Or we see the care and dismiss it, focusing on what feels more familiar – criticism, anger, detachment. If you fight a lot, I have a challenge for you. Can you find a moment of care or tenderness in your partner? If it’s hard to find there, can you offer a moment of care or tenderness and stay with it until he/she is able to see it and take it in? While it’s not easy (maybe not even possible) during a fight, could each of you commit to looking for these moments as often as possible when you’re not fighting? If you try this, I would love to hear your comments and find out what happens.