No Holds Barred: Hope for Couples Who Fight Mean
As couples become disciplined in their conflict, love grows.
Posted Feb 06, 2019
Sue and Roger had been married seven years when I first met them for therapy. I saw Sue and Roger thirteen times. They came to me because they were experiencing “hopelessness” in their marriage and described intense bouts of conflict. Sue would experience hurt and express anger. Roger would experience hurt and either express anger or emotionally withdraw.
The heightened emotional bond of marriage puts partners continually at risk for conflict. Murray, Bellavia, and Rose (2003) wrote,
The experience of slights and hurts at the hand of a partner is inevitable. After all, conflicts of interest routinely surface, and even ambiguous behaviors, if sufficiently scrutinized, might seem to reveal a partner’s irritation, disappointment, or disinterest in oneself.” (p. 128)
I believed that as Sue and Roger became disciplined in their responses during conflict, they would learn how to cultivate vulnerability and mutuality in their marriage. As it was, they reacted reflexively whenever disagreement or inequity was perceived. Every fight left the bitterness of feeling misunderstood, unsupported, and unappreciated. They said of themselves, “We fight mean,” and, “We can both be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
The central goal of therapy for Sue and Roger was “to learn to talk to each other again,” to regain the experience of being in a relationship, rather than merely enduring one another.
In the third session, they reported having a “not so good last couple of weeks.” They found themselves frequently getting into heated arguments around Sue forcing Roger to have conversations with her about subjects that he did not want to talk about. Roger described feeling “like my whole life is ‘I’m sorry,’” because Sue always “nagged” him about the things that she thought he should be doing.
Roger felt overwhelmed when Sue approached him about multiple concerns at once. He said he needed “time and space to breathe and think.” Sue said she wanted to process through issues immediately. Sue and Roger came to our fourth session still emotionally charged from a fight. Both described not feeling heard. I coached them on the practice of active listening in an attempt to promote understanding and slow the argument.
During session seven, I guided them to reflect on the bodily sensations they experience during conflict and whether they perceive the other’s bodily reactions. Roger reported that when conflict is present, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He described “tiredness, numbness, deadness.” Sue said, “He feels threatened by my body language, and I feel threatened by his.”
Sue shared in our eighth session that she experienced hope and safety when Roger looked at her in the eyes when she wanted to talk to him about something, rather than tuning her out. Roger asserted that he experienced hope and safety when he was given space to sit in the disagreement and then communicate about it again later.
Sue and Roger came into our tenth session joyful, with a story. Amidst Thanksgiving dinner at Sue’s family’s home, Roger opened up to her entire family at the dinner table and told them he was thankful for Sue’s father and her family and apologized for not asking for Sue’s hand in marriage. She said, “He had everyone crying.” Additionally, Roger bought Sue a new wedding ring, symbolizing a new season of marriage.
Roger and Sue had a fight immediately before our twelfth session. Roger had been feeling exhausted and overwhelmed earlier that day. When Sue brought him coffee as a gesture of love and support, Roger told her, “That’s the last thing I need right now.” This started an escalation, in which Roger became withdrawn. I asked Sue what Roger may have wanted to say to her. As Sue speculated, Roger began to speak for himself, expressing regret for his behavior earlier in the day and speaking supportive words to Sue.
By the thirteenth session, Roger and Sue had canceled three appointments since we had last met two months prior, and I made a decision to confront them on their investment in therapy. I informed Roger and Sue that they were responsible for their investment in therapy and that I was committed to being invested with them only as long as they were themselves invested.
I did not expect the speech Roger would give. Roger mused aloud about therapy, telling stories illustrating how they had become more capable and confident in their marriage over the past year. Having more positive experiences with each other, Roger expressed feeling less energy toward therapy and more energy in life itself and with each other.
Roger commented, “Before we came in today, I told Sue we might be in a place where it would be better just to sit down with each other over coffee and discuss our relationship by ourselves.” By the end of the session, they confirmed that they would like to terminate therapy.
Sue and Roger, like many couples, struggled to know how to manage intense, reactive conflict. They learned that, with practice, they were capable of gaining distance from the powerful influence of anxious emotions.
As Roger began to acknowledge ways that he withdrew from Sue at the whim of momentary anxiety, he began to act in spite of his anxiety, remaining engaged with Sue in an honoring way. As he did, he became more confident and less volatile. As Sue began to acknowledge ways that she pressed for resolution on issues of difference, she began to make peace with anxieties that drove her behavior in the relationship. As she did, she became more confident and less volatile.
As intentionality increased little by little, confidence increased. As confidence increased, conflict increasingly resulted in experiences of mutuality, rather than anger and fear. Sue and Roger gained a greater degree of freedom through restraint and a greater degree of attraction through differentiation, and this is the irony and the dignity of therapy.
This article originally appeared in Family Therapy Magazine. Reprinted courtesy of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. In accord with ethical standards, client identity has been protected through alteration of unique identifying details.
Murray, S. L., Bellavia, G. M., & Rose, P. (2003). Once hurt, twice hurtful: How perceived regard regulates daily marital interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (1), 126-147.