What’s Below the Surface of Arguments with Your Partner?
I work with many couples who are upset that they fight all the time. They wonder why they can’t solve problems like disagreements about cleaning up the dishes, or how to parent their kids, or whether one works too much. They think that if they solve that content issue, they’ll go back to feeling close again.
In fact, it’s hard to get back to feeling good without looking at what’s underneath. The argument is what’s happening on the surface. But what’s underneath is usually a very real fear of not being loved or appreciated, or being seen as “not good enough.”
Why Arguments Escalate with Loved Ones
When an argument heats up, often there is an unmet need for more emotional connection. One or both partners is feeling emotionally starved.
The person who is upset about dirty dishes, for example, probably thinks, “I’m not appreciated, my partner doesn’t care; I’m just being taken for granted.” This person is in a painful place. The accused partner feels alone and in pain too: “I’ve been working so hard. My partner is never satisfied – I can never do enough or do it right for this person.”
The issue about the dishes is on the surface. It’s the secondary issue. The primary one is about each person’s experience of feeling rejected or devalued. It’s very hard to solve any issue without figuring out how to see below the surface.
Why We Get Stuck Fighting About the Same Old Things
When a pattern of accusing, blaming and withdrawing happens, problem-solving skills stop working. Couples fall into a pattern of “demon dialogs,” says Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight (a great book for couples seeking closeness, and the name of our upcoming workshop for couples).
When fear and anger drive the dialog, the issue becomes “you’re attacking me,” or “you’re not listening,” and it’s no longer about the dishes, the parenting, or any other issue. When couples can recognize their emotional states and explore them more gently, they begin to leave the old cycle of arguing behind.
Understanding Our Emotions Below the Surface
Thankfully, Dr. Sue Johnson also developed a very successful way to help couples get unstuck: Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT. By looking at their difficulties a little differently, EFT helps couples find their way back to feeling close.
Instead of fighting when an issue raises its ugly head, partners become able to slow things down. Each person learns to take time with his or her own emotions, to figure out why the issue is so upsetting.
Sue Johnson found that below the surface, a couple’s intense arguments usually spring from one of two basic feelings: primal panic or triggered raw spots.
Primal panic is that awful feeling of being rejected by a loved one. It’s an earth shaking, life-threatening feeling for most people. I might go into primal panic thinking, “My partner doesn’t care how I feel.” Primal panic comes from a fear of being abandoned, or being found “not good enough.”
Raw spots are individual sensitivities that have roots in each person’s past. For example, like many female children, I was brought up to be a “good girl” — to please others. So sometimes when my partner and I get into a conflict, it can set off a great deal of anxiety around fitting in with this ‘rule’.
It’s so terrifying to think that our loved one doesn’t believe we’re good enough, or that he or she won’t be there for us. These fears can — and do — intensify arguments with huge amounts of energy.
Learning to recognize and redirect this energy is the key to getting out of the demon dialogs. A gentle focus on one’s own emotions stops them from making matters worse, and can help couples begin to heal.
How to See Below the Surface of an Argument
To get down to the primary feelings, we have to spend time with the fear of not being loved or not being good enough. It’s hard to do because it’s so terrifying. This is where therapy or a Hold Me Tight workshop can help each partner feel safe enough to look, and learn gentler words for what they find.
It helps to take a deep breath. Drop inside. Think: “Why does this bother me so much? So this situation is really getting to me. What do I think it means about how I’m valued?”
Let these answers guide your next questions: “Is this about the dirty counter today, or does this have roots from my past? Is a tidy room important because I was punished as a kid for being messy? Or do I need to know my partner is tuned into what’s important to me?”
Speaking from the Heart
After each of you cools down, ask to talk together about what you’re feeling. Speak FOR the anger or fear, rather than FROM it. For example: “When I saw the dirty counter today, a lot of strong feelings came up, and I think I’m figuring out what it’s about. Could you hear me out?” Softer words help your partner to listen more closely than angry words do, like: “You screwed up again!”
Being able to speak for your feelings on a specific issue may sound like this:
“I’m so scared that we’re breaking down and you don’t love me anymore.”
“It hurts so much that you’ve left me for your cell phone.”
“I feel so alone and overwhelmed when you’re not here to help with the kids.”
Why does speaking from the heart of the matter help so much? When you know how you feel and why, you can be clear with your partner. You’re asking for help from a softer place. It’s a more vulnerable place, for sure. But that is what makes it more likely your partner can hear you and take it in. You’re more likely to get a helping response from each other.
Know When you ARE Connected
EFT therapists have a helpful acronym for this type of connection — ARE, which stands for feeling acceptance, responsiveness, and engagement. These feelings help each partner know they are tuned into each other enough so their relationship can thrive.
Even couples who have argued for years can become more open, transparent, and connected by tuning in and asking for what they need. I know because I’ve seen it.
Learning to share your emotions under the argument helps couples have a different kind of relationship. It helps you find ways to understand and care for each other. You are able to turn demon dialogs into conversations that ARE intimate: they give you the attunement, responsiveness and engagement that we all deeply long for.
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