How often have you found you and your partner having “the same old fight?” As a couples therapist in Washington DC, I help couples try to communicate differently both in and out of our sessions rather than repeating that “same old fight. ” Picture this: you and your partner return home after your stressful days at work. Your partner asks, “Why are there still dishes in the sink?”
Immediately, you cringe. Rather than fight, you retreat to the den to watch TV. Or maybe, you are the one asking about the dishes – wondering, “does (s)he not care enough to do this one thing??” Both partners are tired, frustrated, and feeling helpless.
This situation is probably familiar to many of us. So why do we all repeat this pattern? The answer—there is value in repetition. The more you repeat something, the better the learning outcome. Yet, when couples are stuck in a negative communication pattern, their fights become reinforcing events for that “same old fight.”
How does this translate to relationship behaviors? We repeat ourselves when we fear loss and don’t know what to do about it. For example, a fear about a partner’s investment in the relationship may manifest itself as repeated questioning about housework. The thought is, “If they really cared, they would be doing more to help out.” Or, you may repeatedly walk away from your partner when those conversations arise because staying in them makes you feel attacked or unworthy. In our emotional worlds, repetition is often a clue that there is unprocessed emotion, or in order words, stuck feelings.
The product of these cycles is the opposite of what we want – distance and misunderstanding. The more one partner pursues the other, the further the other runs away, and vice versa. However, there is a way to break this cycle.
Next time the discussion comes up, it is both partners’ responsibility to listen for (and express) the real message behind the argument. Listen for the feelings that you might not be expressing or not hearing! You both must be willing to drop the typical defensive statements and entertain the possibility that you are wrong about the motivation behind your partner’s behavior. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to take a break from the fight for a few minutes. This gives you time to gather yourself physically and emotionally and put together what you really mean to say.
For one partner, the problem isn’t really that the dishes are dirty. It’s about feeling exhausted and lonely after wondering whether the other person cares. For the other partner, it’s not about being criticized. It’s about fearing that the your partner thinks you’re terrible – that you are unworthy or inferior.
This kind of conversation takes practice. There will be bumps in the road. However, repeating vulnerable conversations will start a cycle of real communication rather than the surface-level arguments that we all loathe. It will be about creating new conversations rather than the same old fight.
Johnson, S. M. (2002). Attachment theory: A guide for couple therapy. In S. M. Johnson & V. E. Whiffen (Eds.), Attachment processes in couple and family relationships. New York: Guilford.
Mikulincer, M., Florian, V., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2002). Attachment security in couple relationships: A systemic model and its implications for family dynamics. Family Process, 41(3), 405-434.