Picture this: you and your partner return home after your stressful days at work. Your partner asks, “why are there still dishes in the sink?” Immediately, you cringe. Rather than stick around for round 39 of the you’re-a-terrible-partner discussion, you scowl and decide you’d rather retreat to the den to watch TV. Or maybe, you are the one asking about the dishes – wondering, “does (s)he not care enough about us to do this one thing??” Both partners are tired, frustrated, and feeling helpless.
This situation is probably familiar to many of us. The same arguments happen time after time, with the same result at the end. Neither partner feels understood or supported by the other. This is painful and unnecessary. So why do we all do this to ourselves? Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the value of repetition. Our grade-school teachers would say that repetition is valuable for learning. The more you repeat something, the better the learning outcome. Thus, we practice our times tables, cursive handwriting, and attempt to memorize the periodic table of elements.
How does this translate to relationship behaviors? We repeat ourselves when we fear loss and don’t know what to do about it. However, most of the time, the habits we fall back on are NOT healthy. For example, a fear that a partner is no longer invested in the relationship may manifest itself as repeated questioning about housework. The thought is, “if they really cared, they would be doing more to help out.” Or, you may repeatedly walk away from your partner when those conversations arise because staying in them makes you wonder if your partner actually thinks you’re a competent individual. Repeating these cycles does not teach your partner why you are in pain.
The product of these cycles is the opposite of what we want – distance, misunderstanding, and dissatisfaction in the relationship. The more one partner pursues the other, the further the other runs away, and vice versa. However, there is a way to break this cycle. Breaking bad relationship habits is hard, especially in a culture that is built in part upon the idea that if at first you don’t succeed, try again. This is not productive in the situations I’m writing about. You’ve already tried, and tried, and tried. Time for something different.
Next time the discussion comes up, it is both partners’ responsibility to listen for (and express) the real message behind the argument. You both must be willing to drop the typical defensive statements and entertain the possibility that you are wrong about the motivation behind your partner’s behavior. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to take a break from the fight for a few minutes. This gives you time to gather yourself physically and emotionally and put together what you really mean to say. It’s not about the dishes. It’s about feeling lonely from doing all the work. It’s not about being criticized. It’s about fearing that your partner thinks you’re terrible. Being honest about those difficult messages is the first step toward behavioral change. This kind of conversation takes practice. There will be bumps in the road, and that is something that each partner will have to tolerate. However, repeating these kinds of conversations will start a cycle of real communication rather than the surface-level arguments we all loathe.
Alex Chan, M.S.
Johnson, S. M. (2002). Attachment theory: A guide for couple therapy. In S. M. Johnson & V. E. Whiffen (Eds.), Attachment processes in couple and family relationships. New York: Guilford.
Mikulincer, M., Florian, V., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2002). Attachment security in couple relationships: A systemic model and its implications for family dynamics. Family Process, 41(3), 405-434.