By Adam D. Blum, MFT, Gay Therapy Center Founder and Director
When you fight with your partner it can feel like he or she is the enemy. Couples can get momentarily trapped in a belief that the person they love is evil, intent on doing them harm. Unless you are in love with a sociopath, your partner is not evil. But I understand that’s how it feels when you are in a cycle of fighting.
As you take a closer look at your fights, perhaps you will see this very common pattern: One of you attacks and the other gets quiet and distant.
Decades of research on couples shows that this pattern is the most widespread and enduring one in relationships.
Underneath this exhausting dance, here is what may be happening for each of you:
At first glance it might be easy to judge the attacker as mean, bitchy, and demanding. That’s certainly how their partner experiences them.
But if we explore the tender places below those expressions, we can find that the attacker is really just fighting for the relationship. They want to re-establish the close connection you had before. Their rage is protesting the loss of this contact.
The stonewaller looks uncomfortable, distant and like they just doesn’t care. To their partner it feels like they have exited the relationship.
Underneath, they experience the humiliating pain of “doing it wrong” in the relationship once again. They feel like a failure and that causes them to freeze up. They are quietly protesting feeling criticized by their partner.
The couple gets caught in a loop. One partner reaches out—in a negative way—and the other steps back. This gets repeated, again and again.
Part of this cycle may be wired into primates. An infant monkey will attack a mother who ignores them, desperately trying to get her attention.
Changing the Cycle
Consider how these steps could help you soften this painful system:
Step One: Tap the Power of Time
If you are triggered and fighting with your partner, good communication can’t occur. It’s best to give up talking about it until you feel a little better.
The good news is that you always feel calmer after giving it some time. You may just need a one-minute break to wash your face, take a breath, and get a snack from the fridge. Other times you’ll need to take the dog for a long walk around the neighborhood.
Respect your partner by letting them know how much time you think you need to calm down, so they aren't left hanging.
Step Two: Name and Reframe
We feel a lot more relaxed when we gain perspective about what is really going on. During the “time out” period, remind yourself that you are stuck again in the familiar “attack-stonewaller” pattern.
If you are the “attacker”, remind yourself that your partner probably is feeling like a failure and that’s why they are withdrawing again.
If you are the “stonewaller”, remind yourself that your partner misses you, wants to be closer, and that’s why they got so upset.
These “reframes” help you to stop viewing the person you love as the evil enemy. It reminds you about the vulnerable and tender feelings that are the engine driving all of your fights.
Step Three: Discuss the Cycle Together
Now try coming back together and talking about what just happened from the perspective of this cycle.
An attacker could say something like: “I want to be close to you, you are feeling criticized by me, and we’re both feeling shaky right now. Let’s hug.”
A stonewaller might say: “I am frozen, you are fighting for our relationship and we are upset. You feel shut out. I don’t want to fight anymore. Let’s rest on the couch together.”
Notice that each of those sentences ended with what couples therapists call a “reach.” A reach is a request for closeness. Asking for a hug is a classic and often powerful reach.
Are the above steps easy to implement? I’m afraid not. Getting to Step Three takes commitment and time. Couples counseling is usually about helping clients get to Step Three.
Is it worth the energy to work on shortening and reducing the fights? To answer that question, ask yourself: what is more important than my relationship?
Want to read more? Check out our articles with gay relationship advice.
For more information about how we help LGBT individuals and couples please visit our website at www.gaytherapycenter.com. We offer services in our San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles offices or by Skype or phone worldwide.