If you look under the surface of every little fight, no matter what the topic, you will find that ultimately they are about some basic core fear that all humans hold. The fears essentially look like these questions:
Does he love me?
Does she care about me?
Will he stick around?
These fears lurk in all relationships, even the highly successful long term variety.
Here are some examples from real LGBTQ couples with great relationships. See if any feel familiar to you:
Fact: She forgot to pick up the milk you asked her to get on the way home.
Real Reason: She is overwhelmed and distracted by all the pressure at work this week.
Your Unconscious Experience: She is not paying attention to my needs. She just doesn’t care about me.
Fact: He declined your invitation to have sex tonight.
Real Reason: He is tired from focusing on tax returns all day.
Your Unconscious Experience: He doesn’t find me attractive. He’s sick of me and will leave me.
Fact: She is late again.
Real Reason: She has a mild form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), making it much harder for her to stay on top of the daily tasks of life.
Your Unconscious Experience: She doesn’t think about me. She doesn’t really love me.
The academic research is compelling: these unconscious fears are “built in” to humans and start in infancy. Psychologists call them “attachment needs”.
Infants must be attached to caretakers or they will die. Receiving food and shelter is not enough to survive: infants in several Russian orphanages died at very high rates not because they didn’t get enough nutrition or water, but because no one touched or held them.
Our need for attachment is equally important for survival as our need for food and shelter.
Even if we were lucky enough to receive great parenting (in psychological lingo this means we are “securely attached”), we will always be assessing our partner to determine if he or she is a safe person to rely on. It’s part of natural selection. Babies who can successfully attach to their parents have a much higher likelihood of survival.
This process of feeling safe in our relationships gets a little more challenging if our parents didn’t have the capacity to be emotionally present at least 30% of the time when we needed them. (Yes, there is research on this.)
What To Do
How can awareness of these attachment needs help you and your partner?
You can practice slowing down and becoming more aware of what is really happening in the moment. This pause will reduce the pattern of reacting quickly from the habitual place of fear.
The next time you are mad at your partner ask yourself “What is happening to me?” before responding to them. If you pause you’ll start to realize that you have fallen into the automatic, untrue belief that they are the enemy trying to do you harm.
Ask yourself: are they really trying to do evil here? Do they have bad intentions?
The answer in the overwhelming majority of relationships is “no.”
Here’s an example from my own life. The other day my devoted husband of 24 years was driving and turned right when I asked him to turn left. I felt enraged. Rather than screaming at him (okay I may have made a snarky comment), I asked myself “What’s going on?” I realized I felt that he wasn’t listening to me. Underneath “not listening” was the feeling “he doesn’t care.”
It is not true that he doesn’t care. By realizing what was happening I was able to come back to the truth, and avoid picking a fight that could have spoiled the evening.
The truth is that the careless or seemingly mean thing your partner did was probably not about you. It was about their feelings of fear, overwhelm, insecurity, tiredness, hunger, vulnerability, or anxiety that they are not doing it right as your partner. Maybe beneath their confident exterior they are just worried that you will leave them.
With practice you can learn to pause, to remind yourself what is really true. (Such as, “She loves me but is having a scared little girl moment and I am feeling insecure right now”). Then you can make a more reasoned response to her irritating behavior.
This doesn’t mean that you put up with bad behavior or remain silent about it. Your partner needs to know when you are hurt by their actions. And if they do not have the capacity to comfort you or meet your needs (most of the time), then now may be the time for an overhaul or end of the relationship.
When you find you are arguing about soap scum, take a moment to look at the attachment issues underneath.
Ask yourself: is they really trying to do evil here? Maybe you should proofread before you submit?
What should you do when your partner does pick a fight? How should you react?
Great question. How about trying a “process statement?” So instead of going into the material of his specific complaint you focus on what is actually happening between the two of you. You could say “What’s going on here?” or “Something is happening between us right now. Can we talk about it?” Sometimes your partner won’t be able to “process” in the moment because he is too upset. So a few hours later you could say “I think something was going on between us this morning. How about we talk it over and see if we can figure out what was happening underneath our fight about the dish drain?” Ultimately couples work isn’t about solving the problem or disagreement. It’s about learning how to talk about our real feelings.
Thanks. I think this could be an entire blog or session!