Every couple argues, and every argument affects their intimacy as well as the emotional distance between them. Some disagreements leave only minimal or temporary scars that fade with time. The couple’s love continues to deepen, seemingly undamaged. Unfortunately, escalating or stinging arguments can leave deep and lasting fissures that damage relationships.
Many areas of conflict can determine the fate of a relationship, but the most crucial one is each partner’s underlying attitude is towards the other. Whether unconscious or intended, that core set of thoughts is often deeply embedded, pervasive, and negatively biased. As the argument heats up, one or both of the partners will fall back into this default position, dooming any hope of successful resolution.
Default positions are most likely to intensify in established relationships. The longer people have been together, the more they are likely to repeat established patterns. These ritualistic interactions usually emerge slowly in intimate relationship but can explode early on if any differences are pronounced and passionate. Because they are often intertwined with positive aspects, they can often stay invisible too long, causing much greater problems down the line. They are also deeply defended against rational inquiry, and can be notably resistant to change.
When these internal, fixed attitudes are not identified and corrected, the partners in an intimate relationship do not realize how much power they have to affect their disputes. They do know that most of their arguments leave them drowning in whirlpools of confusion, often not remembering what they were arguing about, or why their resolutions didn’t hold.
Negative default positions are often relationship destroyers. No matter how much a more typical relationship partner loves and values another, he or she will not be able to survive continuous onslaughts of negative default positions. It is the classic “I can’t win for losing” conundrum.
Anytime either partner comes from a core experience of a basic negative attitude towards the other, all disagreements will eventually be twisted into a one-sided criticism that defies reality. Those pre-determined expressions of invalidation will doom the targeted partner to a life of defending his or her basic worth. Unless martyrdom is the goal, that person will eventually leave the relationship.
If you can identify your own fixed, negative default positions, you can replace them with a far more successful set of skills that can turn frustrating, repetitive conflicts into positive resolutions. When you have mastered that new process, you can create a deeper intimacy through embracing each other’s differences and opening up to the possibilities of deeper intimacy.
Wipe-outs are verbal invalidations that erase a partner’s estimated value in the moment. The partner using a wipe-out will use any interaction to exaggerate faults and minimize any positive contribution. Any attempts by the target of a wipe-out to rectify a misunderstanding, make-up for a mistake, or just to create a quality interaction, are met with challenges. These continuously criticized partners live in the tragedy gap of never feeling “good enough.”
Negative Default Position:
She’s such a loser. I wonder what excuse she’ll use this time.
She: “Hi honey. Dinner is going to be a little late. I got stuck in the market talking to our next door neighbor and lost track of time. How are you?”
He: “What do you mean, how am I? What’s that, your attempt to cover up breaking the deal again? I might as well never believe anything you tell me because you can’t keep your word. Why do I ever expect you’re going to do what you say?
She: “Hey, you’re being really mean. Let up. It’s no big deal, 15 minutes. Why are you so angry?”
He: “Don’t lay this on me just to get out of it. Just because it’s a small example doesn’t mean you get to minimize it. Don’t bother. I’m going out to get a hamburger.”
Some relationship partners are so concerned with being controlled that they won’t let their partners have the final say in anything. They will argue, invalidate, or dismiss any comment that might put them in the one-down position, even if their partners are correct. Their core feeling is that their partners will dominate them if they are not kept in their places. Because of their fear of being less-than, they don’t allow in any information that might change their minds.
Negative Default position:
He would run my whole life if I allow him to.
He: “I just saw Tim and Jean at the park and they want us to join them later for a BBQ? I told them we were free tonight. How about it, sweetheart? It’s a beautiful night and we haven’t been out all week. Might warm us up a little.”
She: “You always spring these things on me. I already have something I have to do tonight. Tell them thanks but maybe some other time.”
He: “You told me this morning that you were looking forward to the weekend because you didn’t have any obligations. You didn’t tell me you already had something you had to do.”
She: “Just because I told you I didn’t have any obligations doesn’t mean I wanted you to find one for me.”
He: “But you told me that you like this couple and wished we could spend more time with them. I don’t understand.”
She: “Just don’t make plans for me without asking first, okay? I’m not some kind of plug-in partner whenever you want to do something.”
Unfortunately, there are intimate partners who are so afraid that their desires will be thwarted that they imagine the worst possible outcome and pre-defeat their needs. Any partner behavior that smacks of a potentially positive outcome will be met with a rapid invalidation. They would rather live an unfulfilled life than risk disappointment or disillusionment. They usually attract positive people who want to save them from their continuous expectations of doom. Those locked-in expectations of loss can defeat even the most ardent of rescuers.
Nothing ever works out for the better, so why even try?
She: “Hi, honey. I’ve got great news. I got the promotion and the raise. We can finally plan that great vacation we’ve always wanted.”
He: “Does that mean you’ll have to work longer hours. You’re never home as it is.”
She: “Well, probably for a while. But why are you focusing on that? This is the opportunity of my life to finally make it and you were all for it. What’s the problem?”
He: “I’m not trying to spoil your deal. I just know that things don’t come for free and we’ll have to make sacrifices. I don’t want to count on something without knowing what it’ll cost. And it always does, you have to admit. So we get to go on a great vacation. They’ll take it out on you some way, and we’ll be the losers.”
Successful Default Positions
It is not possible for couples to eliminate all default positions. Everyone needs a confident and secure platform to fall back on when they are in a conflict situation. If relationship partners understand each other’s core attitudes and evaluations, they know what to expect in a disagreement. Until those core evaluations are clearly seen and changed when necessary, the couple will drown in repeated disagreements and are doomed to repeat them.
For positive conflict resolution, both partners must be willing to re-evaluate their default positions on a regular basis. They must strike a balance between validating each other’s positions while being while simultaneously being realistic about their differences. When couples are willing to openly communicate their core default positions to one another, they can evaluate together whether they are relationship supportive or destructive.
If a couple understands the danger of extreme negative default positions, they can begin making them more realistic. They must also reevaluate what they truly feel inside as a disagreement begins. Negative extreme positions highly correlate with eye-rolling, extreme doubt, and words of invalidation or defense. They are impervious to new data. It is similar to a courtroom situation where the gavel has come down and no new discovery is allowed.
Successful default positions have several things in common:
They are objective
They are flexible
They search for old negative patterns that hurt the relationship
Both partners are eager to rid themselves of any locked-in prejudices that can keep them from learning more about each other. They are interested and intrigued by where their fixed biases were formed, and why they have continued to use them.
Examples of Successful Default Positions
Most partners get into trouble when they argue because each loses perspective and holds more tightly to their own reality. As the disagreement takes on energy and fear of loss, they are more likely to fall prey to an old pattern that erases any reality but their own.
Intimate partners, as they strive to be deeply heard and validated by the other, can feel the negative energy begin to destroy that possibility, and stop it before it takes hold.
Successful default position:
You are important to me. Your way of looking at any situation matters to me. I never want to win at your expense or erase what you are feeling and thinking. Our best solution to any argument is a new truth forged out of mutual respect for each of our positions.
He: “I just don’t like that restaurant. The food tastes old, the waiters are rude, and the prices are too high. Don’t ask me to go there again.”
She: “I think you’re being really rigid about this. We’ve had good times there before. You’ve even recommended it to our friends. Why should one bad night make you want to cross them off our list forever?”
He: (heating up) “You’re not listening to me. I had a lousy time tonight. Why can’t you just accept that I’m angry and stop trying to change my mind?”
She: (Realizing they are losing objectivity) “Hold on, sweetheart. I think we’re sliding. My default position in the past was to make everything nice and yours has been to not get ripped off. We need to listen to each other. The food was bad tonight and I shouldn’t be making excuses for it.”
He: (relaxing) “And I shouldn’t be so goddamn opinionated. I had a day filled with stupid, rude people and I’m way overreacting. Sorry, babe. Let’s call the manager and tell him how we felt about it. He’s a great guy.”
When couples begin to differ, they often become rigid in their positions. As the argument heats up, that rigidity has to wipe out any other data in order to survive. What could have been an opening for seeing the world from more than one perspective quickly becomes a top-down need to win. As each partner stiffens, the other pushes back, mocks a giving-in, or disconnects. Both seem to fear that one opinion will stand at the expense of the other.
With the loss of flexibility, both partners are likely to forget that they can damage their intimacy if either of them is sacrificed. Childhood patterns of submission or rebellion increase, and maturity diminishes.
Successful default position:
I trust you. I know that you want me to feel heard and validated. Even if we are disagreeing in the moment, I know we will find a way to stay open to each other’s way of thinking. I need to stay flexible and not jump to conclusions because staying close is better.
She: “I am really upset about the way you treated my mom today. She didn’t do anything to hurt you and you were so rude. She left upset and now I’m going to have to fix it. I want you to call her and apologize. At least tell her you were just in a bad mood and didn’t mean it. And you need to do it tonight so I can get some sleep.”
He: (surprised and rebellious) “Your mom is the most overly sensitive person I’ve ever known. I didn’t do anything that bad. She loves being a martyr and sets me up. Why aren’t you calling her and telling her that she overreacted to me? Why is it always my fault? You cater to her.”
She: (getting angrier and more rigid) “There you go again, making it someone else’s problem. Why don’t you ever own up to your contribution when things go wrong? My mom tried to be nice even after you were so critical. I’m not backing down here. You were wrong and you need to admit it.”
He: (realizing that they were slipping into negative default positions) “This isn’t good. We’re both hardening and making the other person the bad guy. I know you want everyone to be okay and I love that about you. It’s just hard when you want me to be the fall guy and I know that your mom isn’t helping.”
She: (taking a breath and listening) “You’re right. I do always defend her and that ends up making the problem between us. It shouldn’t be that way. I guess I trust you to do the right thing more than I trust her and it’s hard for me to listen to her complain about you. That’s not fair to you. I need your help to figure out a better way to handle this.”
What Are Your Default Positions?
Here are some questions that will help you identify and change your automatic default positions if they are turning your conflicts into disconnects and destroying the love between you.
When you and your partner begin to argue, what emotions and thoughts are behind your words?
As a conflict between you heats up, what facial expressions would you see if you were to look into a mirror?
Once you are locked into an argument, what do you believe your partner is thinking about you?
When you are arguing with your partner, do you remind yourself of people from your past that modeled that behavior?
Which of your default positions bring you closer or turn you farther away from your partner?
Once you are backed into a corner, can you alter your position?
Have you practiced the same default position in other close relationships?
Does your default position in your relationship truly reflect the way you feel about your partner?
It is a very helpful starting point for positive change if you and your partner honestly answer these questions and then share your answers. Come out from behind any negative default positions. Encourage each other to integrate what you consistently feel inside with how you present yourself in a conflict interaction. That process may uncover deeper heartaches between you at first, but you will become closer over time. Ignoring them will cause much more damage in the long run. What you can see, you can change.