Do you know that frustrated feeling you get in an argument when you just know that you’re right but you are not being heard by your partner? Well, you’re not alone. As a systemic therapist, I see couple after couple with this exact complaint. “If he/she would just change this (insert concern here), we would be fine.” Like a debate team, partners become skilled at going head to head, point for point in defense of their argument. And, on a debate team, that’s a useful technique. But in an intimate partner debate that can end in only one result: loss, because after all, there is only one team here.
Digging our feet in the sand: Picking our roles
In couples, hurts can build up and each new slight can affect us deeply. For example, “It might be nice if you would ask me about my day instead of sulking through the door ignoring me,” meets with “Well I had a long day, too. I’m exhausted and it might be nice if you could give me some space when I get home.” But of course this is not just about the greetings this couple gives one another. It’s deeper. Neither partner is feeling heard and odds are that some accumulated pain is coloring these responses. While the dialogue here may differ, the debate has been set and inevitably, the debaters will take their stances. The most common roles? The Pursuer v. The Distancer. In these two positions, the pursuer tends to feel invisible, that no matter how much they push, they’re not being heard. While the withdrawer often retreats further and further into themselves, often feeling that no matter how they respond, it’s never enough anyway.
So, what can we do differently?
As any good debater will tell you, it feels great to finally beat our opponent. In intimate relationships, we can forget that this is not our opponent, this is our teammate. Once partners settle into the roles of pursuer or distancer, it can be difficult to break the cycle; difficult, but not impossible. This is especially true with two willing partners. Once couples decide that winning the battle is less important than protecting the relationship, there are a few simple communication techniques that can help partners to lay down their swords.
Setting a time and place:
Decide on a neutral place and time to discuss important topics. I’ve worked with a couple in the past that saved heated arguments for restaurants so that it would force them to speak respectfully to one another. If out-of-the-house discussions are not possible, just be sure to set aside a time to speak and stick to it. Treat it as importantly as you would a significant business meeting.
How to be heard:
“I Statements” – We are heard much more clearly in an argument when we can label our feelings. “I felt really hurt when you didn’t call” is a lot more effective than “You’re so unreliable I knew you would forget to call me.” It’s hard to argue when someone tells you how they feel. We don’t necessarily have to agree with our partner’s feelings, but we can’t dispute that they have them and can hopefully find ways to validate them.
Validating does not meaning having to agree – This is a good skill to practice. We may not always agree with our partner during arguments, but we can absolutely find ways of making sure our partner feels heard. For example, with the above scenario, “I felt really hurt when you didn’t call,” already puts our partner into a less defensive place. It leaves us more open to the ability to validate our partner. We have more room to respond with, “I can understand how my not calling today left you feeling hurt. That was not my intention.” It’s important to end the sentence there and avoid the ever-tempting “…but” at the end. The goal here is connection and empathy, not winning.
Knowing when our Repair Attempts are not working:
Sometimes, despite our best attempts at breaking our negative cycles and changing our communication patterns, we need a little extra help to make lasting changes. At North Brooklyn Marriage and Family Therapy we have couples therapists that accept a range of different fees in order to best meet your financial needs. Call 718-785-9718 to learn more.
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