Author: Lorrie Appleton, LCSW
“YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! I leave the children with you for five minutes and now they have colored all over the wall? What were you thinking?? Was your brain in your head when I put you in charge?” Verbal Reply: “It’s just a little crayon. Look. It comes right out. Why do you always get so worked up over little things? You’re just like your mother!”
Here’s another one.
Spouse/Partner has agreed to meet family for dinner at 6:30 pm. She/He has been sitting on the couch for 30 minutes with foot tapping, hand on head, and eyes closed. Her/His face is drenched in agony. “We are going to be late! We are always late! We knew about this dinner over a month ago. What’s so hard about being on time?” Behavioral Reply: Deadening silence combined with icy glare that could cut a diamond. Tick, tick, tick. More time elapses. Partner’s Thought Bubble: “That will show her/him to impose time constraints on me! I am not going to dignify her/his demand with a reply. You know what they say, ‘Don’t get mad, get even!’”
NOTE TO READER:
If you have just met your partner and you are madly in love, then you may surmise that couples who behave these ways are childish and should abandon the relationship with great haste. You fresh-faced lovers may render a big sigh of relief and say, “Thank goodness we don’t act that way.”
For those of you lovely readers who have been together beyond the honeymoon phase, reading these scenarios may cause you to chuckle. These are familiar scenes in the life of a long-term relationship. What once was a battlefield which caused dissention and vitriol becomes life’s banana peels.
NOTE FROM THERAPIST:
Why do couples argue about the same things repeatedly, hoping against hope that things will change? Simple! When I am working with couples in therapy, I have SIX people in the room, not TWO. Even though the client couple is paying the bill and doing the work, each of their parents are looming and making their presence known. We grew up in different families and we play by different rules. One partner learned that direct conflict is expected when trying to resolve a problem. Assert yourself and let your feelings be known! Another partner witnessed parents in the icy silence of passive-aggression. Like most of us, you learned how to behave sub-consciously and you assert your values with vehemence. “Of course, you arrive at the airport two hours early!” “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”
Dear couples, don’t blame yourselves. When choosing your partner, you did not interview their inner child. During courtship, our eyes are glazed over with chemistry and our fingers were crossed hoping for a good outcome. Our internal baggage was well-hidden and often popped out without warning.
Here’s the good news.
Typical couples’ conflicts are symptomatic of the normal evolution of a relationship with TWO EXCEPTIONS. If couples get stuck, escalate, and exert control using emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, they have crossed the line from bickering to hostility, aggression, and violent dominance. It is likely that they are mirroring what they saw as children and, if the couple has children, they are watching their parents closely. The dynamic is called inter-generational dysfunction and therapy would be highly recommended. Also, if you have developed negative interactive patterns which impede your daily functioning, (work, sleep, eating, etc..), it is likely time to seek help. Ignoring clear signs of battle fatigue, generally lead to greater challenges ahead.
So, here’s the bottom line. If you and your partner are locked in the “don’t squeeze the middle of the toothpaste tube” quarrel, DON’T PANIC! You learned it and you can un-learn it. For those of you who are frightened about how your relationship is evolving and want to make a change, I suggest you reach out and get help. Our marriages and families are depending on you.