By Eric Bailey, Marriage and Family Therapist, Catholic Family Services
Couples come to see me for what they call a communication problem.
"We are always fighting" or "It seems lately that it doesn't matter what we say to each other, someone always gets mad" are common statements that I hear. As I work with the couple two things become apparent. The first is that a couple that truly cares about each other has built up such strong negative feelings towards each other that they are "allergic" to the other person. Secondly the problem is not so much a communication problem as it is a connection problem.
"Allergic to each other?"
When I was a child I was having allergic reactions and so the doctor decided I needed to have allergy testing done. I tested positive for many of the different items. At the end of my testing I had scratches and welts from one arm to the other. They finished with the control test to make sure that these reactions were not a result of another problem. I reacted to the needle itself. I know that I am not allergic to the needle and I suspect that they had other opportunities to test along the way for the needle but by the end of the test it did not matter what they tested me for, I would react.
This is the problem with allergies, they have a cumulative effect. The more things you are reacting to the more likely you are to react to other things, even things you are not allergic to.
Sometimes in our relationships things get strained, get to the point where it does not matter what the other person says, you will react to it like it was an insult or a personal attack. When I am mad, it is everybody else's fault. In the couple relationship this can happen over time. We are reading body language, tone of voice, implications that all tell us that this person, the one who is closest to us, is attacking us again.
I remember my brother fighting with me and as my parents were trying to sort it out, one of us said, "he was going to hit me, so I hit him back first." This is the problem faced by couples in the midst of a relationship allergy attack.
They will hit back first. When we feel threatened we defend ourselves, doing whatever it takes to survive. Sometimes that includes a pre-emptive strike. In relationships where this has been going on for a while it becomes two people who are hurting each other because they have been hurt by each other. Each side argues about who started it and why they are right in their defence but as my parents would tell my brother and I, "I don't care who started it, just stop it!" The relationship cannot survive this escalating war of blame and reaction so the first step is to stop what you are currently doing. It sounds like the Bob Newhart form of psychology "Just stop it!" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw). There are plenty of tools and methods different therapists use to help couples stop the fights, my preference is self regulation calming techniques (http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx click on the part that says "Strategies to keep anger at bay").
A Connection Problem
The second part of the problem is to see that the communication problem is really a connection problem. When a couple gets together the first while is the couple growing in their connection. They learn about what each other likes and dislikes. They learn how each other behaves, and even thinks. In this time they are becoming more connected to each other than they ever have before.
As time continues they run across areas where they cannot connect properly, places that they have been hurt before and they feel the hurt again. These hurts are shrugged off and ignored as there are more positive connections than negative connections. At some point the connections no longer overshadow the hurts. This is when people start moving away from accidently hurting each other and justify getting angry, and hurting your partner.
The treatment here comes in two basic forms.
Once you have stopped the hurting each other (the allergic reactions), you need to both increase connections and be vulnerable. The first part is the most basic of things to do, find ways to spend more time having fun together. Some of the couples I work with struggle with this because they have young children, they have busy lives or they have too many other commitments taking up their time.
If you want to renew your relationship and reconnect you need to have time together having fun. To renew these feelings in couples we therapists often ask, "what brought you guys together?" I have gone over lists of activities, asked about previous adventures or facilitated the couple talking about things they enjoy doing. Increasing the points of connection goes a long way to helping restore the couple relationship.
The long term change to reshape and renew the relationship is learning how to be vulnerable with each other. Over the course of time, there have been hurts that have been ignored and inflamed. These hurts have added together to create a negative sense of each other in the relationship. Once the fighting is controlled and the points of connection have been increased, there is an increased sense of safety in the relationship.
This is the time when you can start to trust each other again, to share these hurts and start to reconnect. As the couple feels safe we start to explore: The fears they feel in the relationship, the fear of abandonment, the fear of rejection or maybe the fear of failure. To better understand your fears around vulnerability try this test (http://psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com/take_test.php?idRegTest=3265). A good resource for you to read would be (https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/hold-me-tight-seven-conversations/9780316113014-item.html ). Learning to be vulnerable in a relationship is not easy and I would suggest having a guide, a good therapist or good resource material that can help you navigate the challenge of change.
Communication problems are rarely actually about talking or fighting problems but rather they are usually connection problems. Connection problems are fixed by stopping the things that get in the way of making connections and increasing the things that assist connection. Stop the "allergy" fighting, find ways to have fun together and learn how to be vulnerable with each other.
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