My wife, Michelle, and I met with a couple that were fighting about how much time they should spend at her parents when they visited that weekend. We tried to get them to agree on the amount of time. He said 2 hours and she said 6 hours. Eventually, they compromised. He was at 4 hours and she was at 4 hours and 15 minutes. They couldn’t close the gap between the last 15 minutes.
Suddenly, it occurred to me. This isn’t about how much time they spend at her parent’s house. This was about something else. Negotiating a compromise wasn’t helping.
There are different levels to what couples fight about. Sometimes, the real issues aren’t the surface issues.
Level One: What We Fight About
Couples fight about all kinds of topics: finances, chores, sex, parenting, etc. All of us do this. What causes the most trouble isn’t the topic we are fighting about, but something much deeper.
The couple that was fighting about how much time to spend at her parent’s house wasn’t about that. It was about something else, something deeper. Are you and your partner really fighting about spending time at your parent’s house or are you reacting to criticism? Are there deeper emotional triggers underneath the issue?
Level Two: How We Fight
Often times, we are reacting to how we fight and not to the specific topic. When you feel criticized are you reacting to that feeling? Does that make you jump to defending yourself? Do you eventually shut down?
This is all about how we fight. Couples often fall into a pattern that happens over and over again, regardless of the topic of the disagreement. These behaviors tear down the marriage bond.
Level Three: What’s the Emotion Trigger?
Have you ever just lost it? Have you reacted to something in a way that doesn’t make sense? Someone says something or does something that triggers something inside of you.
I know I have. I used to invalidate Michelle’s feelings. When she would get emotional, something inside of me clicked and I responded with logic. That was my way of dealing with emotions – ignore them and put on an analytical grid. My reaction was something that I learned in my childhood. If you would have confronted me, I would have responded with a logical argument about why what Michelle was doing didn’t make sense. Not exactly responding in love, right?
When I learned the impact on Michelle of my actions, it helped me to think about emotions differently. This is part of what I needed to change in order to validate and to show love to Michelle.
These triggers can be things like feeling ignored, attacked, scorned, devalued, failing, worthless, etc.
Often, these are things that are deep within us. They may be from our childhood.
- Recognize the conflict pattern – What does this look like? Do you do the same things over and over again?
- Be aware during the conflict – When you start to become aware of your conflict pattern it’s easier to make different choices, even during an argument.
- Emotional triggers – Sometimes, all you need is to understand that they are being triggered. When you understand these deeper issues, it can raise empathy for your spouse.
Phil Carlson is the Co-Founder of Connected Marriage. He is the author of an online tool and marriage curriculum that is used by marriage mentors, pastors and therapists to help couples that are struggling with their marriage. His passion is equipping mentors to work with couples. He is also trains new PREPARE/ENRICH facilitators with certification training.
View Phil’s website: www.connectedmarriage.org