By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Couples often go round and round in the same arguments, never getting anywhere. I see it all the time in my office when couples come for help. And they report that this same dynamic happens at home, too. The arguments get old, the patterns are well-worn, and yet they can’t help but fall into them again and again. My job is to help them find the way out, which – to a large degree – includes helping them to slow down, stop pushing, and start listening.
It can be incredibly helpful to listen for the true meaning underneath what is being said. So often, the meaning below the demands or requests is really about wanting to feel loved, respected, or valued. What would it mean to you for your partner to give you what you are asking for? And what would it mean to your partner for you to give them what they are asking for?
A classic example of this is when a stay-at-home mother wants her husband to watch the kids for a time on the weekend. It’s clear that he wants time to relax – after all, he’s worked hard all week. But she asks and he unhappily says yes. However, he doesn’t do it well – maybe he places the kids in front of the TV and doesn’t even bother to feed them breakfast. When she returns, she gets really upset. She wonders how he can possibly be that irresponsible and feels frustrated by how everything falls on her shoulders. She also feels that he doesn’t really care about her. So, she angrily pours all of this out. He gets angry with her for attacking and feels guilty and inadequate and angry about not being able to de-stress from the workweek. He withdraws and does less, triggering her to get more upset; which of course, triggers him to withdraw more. This is what psychologists call the attack-withdraw pattern. When her needs aren’t met, she attacks; and he, of course, withdraws. It can be a never-ending cycle.
In this example, the meaning behind their arguments is clear. She is looking to feel loved by having him help out and share responsibilities, and he is looking to feel loved by being taken care of.
Once you can identify the meaning behind what you want from your partner, the best thing to do is to share it. Explain how you feel (e.g. alone, hurt) and what you want (e.g. to feel loved). Tell your partner how to help you get what you want (e.g. sharing responsibilities). In a similar way, look for the meaning behind your partner’s requests. Then you can either choose to meet their request or explain why that doesn’t work for you, but what you are willing to do instead. For instance, in our example, the husband might have said he was just too tired to get up early to watch the kids, but that he’d be happy to watch them later in the day.
This kind of communicating and listening can transform your arguments and your relationship. You will no longer be talking about unfed children, dirty socks, or being nagged. You will be talking about how what your partner does leaves you feeling unloved or disrespected, despite his or her intention, and how you very much want to be happier with them. This discussion pulls for each of you to step forward with caring. Such conversations are difficult, but can be productive in getting the love you need and the help you want.
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