We all know that moment of deeply upsetting bewilderment that pushes a relationship fight over the edge. It’s when we ask ourselves for the umpteeth time HOW could they POSSIBLY be DOING this AGAIN when they know how much it UPSETS me?
Dishes left piling up in the sink. Too much time spent scrolling social media when we long for quality time. A big decision made solo instead of together. That tone of voice that makes us feel stupid. The past transgression that refuses to leave the room. The cycle of judgement toward one another that underscores and inflames a banal interaction. Looking at our watch as we wait for them yet again. The political conversation that leaves us screaming how can you think that way! The personal jabs that leave us feeling raw. It’s the triggers we pull and can’t take back when we push each other to our most vulnerable soft spots.
In all of these familiar scenarios, our hyper-focus on the content of our arguments leaves us spiraling into escalation, our heart rates and limbic system hijacked until we’re completely depleted and polarized seemingly beyond repair. These ugly crescendos leave us tending to our wounds alone, which is especially hard when we also count on our relationships to help us heal. How many of us know the feeling of wanting to be hugged by the very person with whom we can’t stand to be in the same room?
The deeper issues that drive escalation are rarely about the content of our fights—dirty dishes, too much time on our phone, politics, the kids—they’re about the needs, vulnerabilities, and biases that get triggered over and over. Unsurprisingly, when a situation affects us deeply, it’s because it resonates with something else we have experienced before. As Dr. Marion Solomon and Dr. Daniel J. Seigel wrote in Healing Trauma, “the greater the intimacy with another person, the more likely that emotions, even archaic ones, will emerge, along with primitive defenses. A therapeutic approach…help[s] partners acknowledge their sense of vulnerability, discover its roots, tolerate waves of emotion, and find ways to address the underlying pain.”
If our partner not looking up from their iPad when we get into bed with them triggers us, it’s not because they didn’t look up. It’s because it falls into a pattern we experience as neglectful. If our partner makes time every week to play tennis with their friend, but doesn’t show interest in planning a weekly date night, it may trigger our insecurity that they don’t actually want to be with us or that we’re not enough for them. In both cases these triggers act as a funnel to our senses of abandonment and failure. And when these triggers compound over time, it creates a lens through which we view every interaction. So, if we think that our partner doesn’t care about us, then everything they do will be interpreted through that lens. Conversely, if we think that our partner wants our wellbeing, we will interpret most of what they say and do from that angle.
We all know the feeling of defending an action we think is too minimal to have caused such offense in the first place. And we all know the feeling of breathlessly explaining how upset we are without totally understanding why. What would happen if we took a pause, took a breath, and attempted to work together to identify what’s really going on? Often, it comes down to three possibilities.
Ever heard the phrase “you’re missing the forest for the trees?” It means that we’re so focused on individual details that we’re missing the bigger picture. Identifying which hidden dimension is causing our relationship fights to escalate helps us get out of the woods, so to speak. Couples therapy researcher Howard Markman explains that there are many hidden dimensions at play under most relationship impasses. But beginning with just the following three can have a profound effect on how we fight—and how we move forward.
Power and Control - Fights about power and control can sound like:
Care and Closeness - Fights about care and closeness can sound like:
Respect and Recognition - Fights about respect and recognition can sound like:
Every fight exists within a context. In any fight, there’s usually more than just one of these dimensions making us question our sanity and relationship, but allowing these categories to function as a framework for identifying where our conflicts are coming from inspires language that leads to more productive conversations.
It’s hard to remember in the heat of the moment, but when someone is extremely angry or deeply upset, it’s usually because they care. That care can be better utilized. It requires developing the skills and language to identify the underlying dynamics which serve as the backdrop to so many of our fights. When we work together in a healthy way to understand how these patterns came to be, we shift our relational trajectory toward how we can help each other through it.
Getting out of the loop is a process of dismantling entrenched dynamics, reversing them micromovement by micromovement. One step leads to another. It may feel unnatural at first to engage in such choreography—articulating our feelings while consciously allowing room for the other’s perspective—but all relationships are a dance. Eventually, it will become more organic to say “I feel something but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing it, but I need you to hear that,” or “Honey, I’m going to hang out with my friends tonight but I was thinking we could do something special tomorrow—what do you think?” Creating new patterns of mutual self-awareness and affirmation of the other is the key to improving our relational dynamics. Remember, the process shapes the experience. The form is more important than the content.