Why Couples May Not Argue Enough…
At first glance it might seem that one of the major reasons couples decide to pursue couples counseling is that they fight too much. Ironically, however, the fights couples engage in are often the result of a determination by both partners not to fight. In fact, many couples do not feel completely safe to express their complaints, and feel rather timid, guilty, or ashamed about stating their own needs and desires. Rather than voicing their complaints to each other, they therefore instead try to suppress them.
When both partners have held in their private desires and wishes for too long, however, a fight eventually erupts, but these kinds of fights are the “symptoms” and not the “problem”. In fact, we might say that couples need to fight more – not less – or that they need to develop greater comfort expressing their complaints to each other on an on-going basis.
The Double Bind of the Unhappy Couple…
Let’s look at an example of a typical couples interaction to illustrate the point:
Jane dislikes her neediness and tries to curtail her natural desire to spend more time with Tom. She really wants to ask Tom to take her out more often and spend more time talking with her. However, knowing that Tom feels threatened by such demands, and questioning her own right to feel this way, Jane tries her best to give Tom his alone time. Yet the more Jane suppresses her feelings, the more resentful she starts to feel, and she now instead picks fights with Tom about not doing his part of the household chores, or makes belittling remarks about his work projects.
In the mean time, Jane gets absolutely no credit for her effort to give Tom his space. Because of her periodic outbursts and her subtle criticisms, Tom knows her encouragement of his alone time is really just pretense, and so all her good efforts are ultimately in vain.
Tom on the other hand feels guilty for his desire to spend time alone so he forces himself to spend more time with Jane. Jane, however, notices the forced nature of Tom’s half-hearted invitations to go out for dinner, or the rote manner in which he brings her flowers, so Tom gets no credit for this either. Instead, he ends up feeling that he is “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t”. This impossible bind is bound to lead to anxiety and ultimately result in an angry demand for more alone time. However, Jane now feels pushed away and has confirmation of her greatest fear which is that “Tom really doesn’t care…”
Compromising is Not the Solution…
In the name of compromise, and in order to please each other, both Tom and Jane are stuck in a lose-lose cycle. They settle for less than what they really want. And yet in exchange for their plea deal, they do not really get the peace they bargained for. Instead they end up feeling both unsatisfied and unappreciated.
The problem is not Jane’s desire to spend more time with Tom or Tom’s desire for more time alone. The problem is that both Jane and Tom are too timid and too inhibited to express their immediate desires to each other and to examine what is really underneath them.
Instead of arguing about roses that are two days too late, or acceptance of independence that is always only temporary, Tom and Jane need to be able to have a talk about what they really want. They need to develop a relationship where there is room for all their feelings, also the one’s that at first glance seem irrational, childish, shameful, or vulnerable. If they are able to talk about their differences in such a mutually accepting way, both Tom and Jane can feel more secure with each other, and more known for who they really are.
And then, as it so often happens in the absurd theatre of life, they may discover that the conflict between them loses its stronghold. Tom, now free to be himself and to express his true feelings, discovers that he actually likes to spend more time with Jane, and Jane, now feeling understood at a deeper level, discovers that she no longer needs to cling to Tom in order to feel connected.
And so it is that when we stop trying to force a solution to our problems, and instead focus on understanding what the problem is really about, the problem is free to morph into something else and to bring about its own resolution…
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like to read more about this topic, I warmly recommend this classic couples therapy book by Dan Wile. You can also visit my own website for more information about the couples therapy process.