Why Does Every Talk About ‘Us’ Turn into a Fight?

Couple arguingYou feel stuck in a rut with regard to how you and your partner communicate. He just doesn’t seem to get what you’re saying. She can parrot your every word but still fails to really understand. Books and friends all point to the basic differences between the sexes and advise you to accept your rut as reality. You are tempted to throw up your hands and stop trying. Still, something tells you that you are not all that different from each other.

Security, freedom, and intimacy: In order to help organize the arguments that currently beset your relationship, let’s take a look at each of these needs and how they shape the language and tone of how you participate with your partner. Our desire (and tolerance for a partner’s desire) to have each of these needs met arises in radically different ways over time. Navigating these three relational needs requires an honest appraisal. They are the forces that drive us as we battle heedlessly—either with or against each other.

Security: You belong here. I accept you as you are.

Imagine yourself standing alone in the center of a large triangle that has been drawn about you. At each corner of the triangle is inscribed each of the aforementioned needs. Now imagine yourself walking slowly toward the first corner, inscribed with the word “security.” Security is the realm where one is allowed to rest in open acknowledgment of present feelings. With each step in this direction, you recover memories of those rare times when you felt understood. Perhaps a favorite friend or family member comes to mind. Someone who simply accepted you as you were; smiling at your humor,  seeing your tears and staying close to you as they flow, joining you in your anger. Others may recall experiences of security as an introspective moment where one simply feels right within oneself. Perhaps a memory of kicking leaves alone on a beautiful fall day, reading a good book, or playing with a pet ushers in memories of a deep sense of at-one-ment with the world.

As you imagine yourself walking closer toward the vertex of the triangle, let the memories sift by until you arrive with a single memory that you will let represent the feeling of security that you are seeking today. Our definitions of security are always evolving, so it makes sense that you would choose a different image at different times in your life.

You may think you already know the kind of memory your partner would have chosen had he/she done this exercise. But do you really? During years of relational intensity, some may have replaced their longing for spaciousness and quiet with a longing for conversation and attention. Others may be discovering, now that the novel excitement of a romance has passed, that the security they really want is to relive the humdrum joys of watching television with a best friend. There are no wrong choices. We must first know and accept our own desires before we can even pretend to empathize with our partner’s.

Sharing is the optimal communication style to instill security. Partners who wish to spend more time in this corner of the triangle will develop their reflective listening skills and learn to put their problem-solving skills on hold: “You needn’t rescue me from my feelings. I only ask that you take heed that they exist.” The tone and language of sharing is one of open self-inquiry. The intention between partners is to stay as nonaccusing and neutral as possible while listening: “I hear you saying that you are tired and resent going to my parents’ house today.” Staying nonreactive is a key skill when sharing. Take a deep breath and practice the difficult art of allowing your partner’s feelings to exist exactly as they are. Empathy remains the only objective.

Freedom: I am alone. I have limits and a voice.

If we associate blue with the attitude for building security (the goal being to dive deep into the watery depths of each other’s feelings), then red is definitely the color for freedom. Imagine yourself back in your triangle and walking slowly along its side from the apex of security to the next corner. With each step, you allow an inner fire to grow. It’s the same fire that once enabled you to navigate your first day at kindergarten, to swim in the deep end of the pool, or to propel your bike aloft without the training wheels. Freedom is the realm where independence, power, and privacy gain their full respect. As you walk toward freedom, what are the images, memories, and sensations that come to you? As a child, as a teen, and then as a young adult—what were the core moments where you recognized your capacity to be free? Once again, the memories you happen to choose at this time in your life are significant. They are telling you something important. What are the qualities of that experience that are calling to you today?

Celebrating your partner’s freedom can be mutually enriching: “I honor things I don’t know about you just as I preserve my own mystery.” The joy of coming together as a couple is balanced by placing high esteem on one’s inviolable aloneness. Not every secret needs to be shared. Though it sometimes hurts to insist on privacy and separateness, there is a strength to it as well. The work is to establish trust that one’s partner’s freedom can coexist peaceably with the parameters of mutual care and love.

As tough as it sounds, the language of freedom is often one of voicing declarations. The art here is to combine this self-affirming language with the awareness that you cannot control your partner. When your core sense of freedom is intruded upon, can you communicate it clearly while maintaining your partner’s right to disagree? A brief, clear declaration (“I deserve to spend time with my friend”) can be far more effective than questions or explanations of why your partner is in the wrong (“You are so insecure, why don’t you ever let me spend time with my friend?”). Using “I statements” can indeed feel distancing, yet they are the most appropriate form for expressing one’s essential need for freedom. “You” statements and accusatory questions may access more fire in your belly but are more oriented toward punishing the other than affirming the self. It takes courage to speak up clearly for one’s values, but it requires equal parts of kindness to stop short of seeking revenge or employing guilt to get your way.

Before we get too carried away with the self-righteous fire of this corner of the triangle, it’s important to keep traveling on to the warmer, yellowish corner of intimacy. As you leave the apex of freedom, bring with you your power to speak up for your core values. You will be using that skill as you work to forge new levels of intimate connection with your mate.

Intimacy: I desire to merge with you. We are joining as one.

Memories of times we’ve felt merged with another can be some of our sweetest recollections. The residual sense may feel similar to melted honey or the warm glow of morning. As you imagine walking the line toward this corner, allow yourself to bask in the nostalgia of times when you first discovered a true friend. It may be that the feeling is suffused with your first sexual encounters. Or it may have nothing to do with sexuality at all. Facebook has capitalized on our core desire for intimacy simply by facilitating opportunities to be “liked.” We like to be like each other. Finding yourself magically in agreement with another brings a porous sense of an expanded self. Hunters joined in a similar pursuit, singers joined in a church choir, even lawyers joined in an exceptionally well-crafted debate; there is a chemically induced ardor that manages somehow to combine excitement and relaxation at once. Our yearning for freedom and security met together at last. As you take your stand in the third corner, bring with you your greatest dream for loving connection.

If only intimacy were always as easy as clicking a “like” button or announcing to our partner, “OMG, me too!” In reality, while you brought your dream for a romantic night together, chances are that your partner brought a dream for a well-scrubbed kitchen. Ouch. Unfortunately, intimacy is founded not on the fantasies of wish fulfillment but on our concrete skills of compromise. The vulnerability inherent in the act of making requests, negotiating differences, and blending interests into a workable solution can make all of us uncomfortable. Unlike security (where we are simply accepted) and freedom (where we stand by our limits), intimacy occupies that middle region where we resolve to accept halfway solutions. Whether playful or serious, it is where the rubber of love meets the road of our personal boundaries. The skills we must develop here are to combine making clear declarations while maintaining all of our reflective listening capacities and empathy. Then to think outside the box and brainstorm ways where your highest priority is making a decision that is satisfactory to both of you.

Before ending this exercise, take one last visit to the center of the triangle. Which of these three basic relational needs seem most essential to you at this time? Perhaps your negotiating skills are well primed but you are yearning to be more deeply understood. Perhaps you’ve been squashing your need to express more declarations of your core values. Or perhaps you’ve been avoiding the vulnerable work of making more mutual decisions with your partner. What skills are you most in need of developing at this time? And in which corner is your partner waiting for you? It’s OK that your partner may be honing a different skill set than you are. If you are truly in this relationship for the long haul, practice helping one another to build realistic opportunities for sharing, declaring, and compromise.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, therapist in Campbell, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Blakely

    Blakely

    September 11th, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Sometimes I feel like I just want to up and leave my husband because we really can’t talk to each other anymore really about any thing without it becoming a fight.
    Why that is I really can’t say. It feels like we have been drifting apart for so long now that I really don’t know what it would be like to be a real couple again. I do love him still and I want to make our marriage work but I kind of feel like I have to go on the defensive all the time to make my voice heard and you can only guess how that goes.
    We aren’t really all that intimate anymore and I know that’s a problem, and when we are, it just kind of feels like a chore. Could you kind of give me some guidance as to where we should go from here, because I just feel like I am a little lost.

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    September 11th, 2013 at 8:46 PM

    Blakely,

    Admitting to feeling lost in the dynamics of your relationship takes guts. It means you recognize that your defensive tactics are no longer protecting you but rather pushing him away and leaving you more lonely. Some of your fighting tactics may feel instinctual and nearly impossible to change. Yet you miss the closeness you once shared. It sounds like you are missing the security of knowing you are both loved.

    Here’s an experiment to try. Ask him to help you start one new daily routine that you both enjoy. Don’t worry about it being the sexiest or most adventurous activity. Just something you know you both like. (Morning coffee together, a walk around the block, or a game you used to play) Now make a promise to yourselves to keep that activity free of talk – especially about problem solving, or new ideas that may lead to conflict. Just let yourselves be together for a little while each day quietly.

    This will be hard if you have grown accustomed to arguing. Let it be hard. It takes practice. You will have plenty of time to learn how to fight better later. Start now by making simple habits to rebuild security.

  • Delores

    Delores

    September 12th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    One thing that I had to learn very early on in my marriage was that no matter what I told my husband or what he told me I didn’t really want his opinion about everything and he doesn’t really always want mine.

    Sometimes I just need him to be my sounding board, and he needs me to be the same. You don’t want advice, you don’t want him to tell you what you should or shouldn’t have done, just shut up and listen.

    I kind of had to learn this the hard way, as I think that most married couples do, but I think that once you do, and you both start to see that you have someone on your side who will take the time to let you vent, that one little thing right there helps to automatically make you a stronger couple.

  • Ruthie

    Ruthie

    September 12th, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    For most couples I think that marriage becomes this constant power struggle, this fight to see who is going to be right and who is going to gain the upper hand. It becomes more about exerting control than it does about establishing and maintaining a loving and caring relationship.

  • jonn

    jonn

    September 13th, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    Don’t you find that the couples hwo have found that perfect balance between time together and freedom are the ones who seem the most secure in themselves and their relationships with each other?

    These are the couples who have locked onto a way to not only feed the souls of their marriage but they do so without losing a part of themselves, who they are at the core, and I think that this is very important.

  • Jo

    Jo

    October 8th, 2013 at 3:43 PM

    I’m stuck in a very painful dilemma and I really don’t know what to do, please can you give me some guidance?

    My parter is frequently hurting me
    emotionally and playing with my emotions, but I love them. And I’ve tried to let go, but I just can’t. I have too many memories of all of the happiness.

    Similarly to Blakely, every time we talk about anything it becomes an argument. We’ve tried to talk about this a number of times but nothing ever works.

    Please help me figure this out.

  • Jonathan Bartlett

    Jonathan Bartlett

    October 9th, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    Jo – It sounds like you are working to reconnect with your own Freedom (from abuse). This is important work and a great time to get the help of a local therapist – see the Find a Therapist tab at the top of the page. It’s possible to stay in touch with your own independence, power, and private boundaries while still maintaining care for the one you love. But don’t be shy about getting help to pull this off because it can be very hard to do.

    If the two of you are open to changing your interaction style on your own, you might try this:

    Set a time to speak about how to “Argue Fairly”. Make it a fairly short meeting and don’t let it slip into talking about a problem or about your relationship. Just see if the two of you can agree on some basic rules.
    Are insults allowed? Is it ok to yell if angry? What are the ingredients of a healthy fight? What is the best way to end an argument that is unresolved?

    See if you can end the meeting fairly quickly with a few agreements in hand. Change takes practice. Plan to meet again in a week or two to see how you did and/or to see if new rules are needed.

    Remember to respect your Freedom (from abuse) even while taking careful steps to increase Intimacy with the one you love.

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