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Couples: Do You Argue About “A” When the Real Issue is “B”?

Couples often don’t realize what they’re really quarreling about.

Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

It's one of the great ironies in doing therapy with couples: When they come in for help with what they’ve identified as their main issue, any competent therapist quickly recognizes a far more fundamental problem underlying their professed difficulties. And generally, couples, with all their blind spots and defenses, aren’t able to perceive the deeper dilemma causing their distress.

If couples have managed to conceal their much thornier concerns from themselves, it’s typically because they’re even more threatening and more anxiety-producing than what they’ve “settled” into arguing about. Still, once the therapist has correctly identified their core issues—and, however begrudgingly, they agree that this is what keeps provoking their ongoing clashes—they can begin to work on what they’ve unconsciously contrived to bury. And that greatly increases the odds that the therapist can assist them in working through these no longer hidden obstacles.

Here are two examples of how and why couples recycle arguments (even when they may have thought they’d resolved them) because they just don’t understand what, on a more profound level, their conflict exemplifies. And this quandary they haven’t resolved, let alone figured out.

For ease of reading I’ll be using the pronouns “he” and “she,” but the party actually initiating or reacting to the grievance could be either sex. Additionally, whether or not the couple is married hardly matters. For the portrayals below depict conflicts likely to take place in almost any more-or-less “committed” relationship, heterosexual or otherwise.

Let’s say a wife complains that her problem is that she and her husband just don’t communicate. Her partner responds, confused, that he doesn’t know what she means, or expects of him; that they communicate as much as other couples do.

What’s the fallacy here? Well, for one thing, in the context of an intimate relationship, it’s impossible not to communicate. Facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, physical presence (or absence), and even what one wears to the dinner table, communicate attitude and feeling. So if the wife voices such discontent, what she’s saying is generally that there’s little verbal communication—and what there is, is mostly shallow, and negative.

So while the wife may be convinced that their solution would be to communicate more, which her spouse seems regularly to resist, the actual solution to the problem is for her (or both of them) to discover how to make their communication more rewarding. That may mean they're addressing each other less judgmentally and with more empathy, support, and understanding. For if one’s “intimate other” is sharing something personal and the spouse is unresponsive, critical, attacking, or offering unwanted advice, such a reaction is likely to feel more punishing than pleasing.

If genuine self-disclosure is to take place in a relationship (probably most of what the wife has been missing), the relationship must be made sufficiently safe and secure for such sharing. In short, the communication has to be gratifying; reinforcing. Otherwise, it’s bound to remain perfunctory and superficial. As author Harville Hendrix stresses in his classic relational work, especially in Getting the Love You Want (20th-anniversary ed., 2007), the three most important elements of a relationship are (cf. the well-known real estate dictum) safety, safety, and safety.

Consequently, the therapist’s role isn’t merely to promote more communication but to explore with the couple why over time it’s become so constricted. For more communication isn’t what’s needed here, but a different, less reactive, kind of communication. However unconsciously, either partner’s griping about their lack of communication is actually expressing sorrow, anger, or fear that the emotional connection between them has been lost and that they’ve been feeling achingly alone in the relationship.

So therapists need to help couples recognize, and eventually relinquish or moderate, the psychological defenses sabotaging their relationship—despite these defenses having protected their vulnerability in it. If the couple is to strengthen their bond, they’ll need to learn how to respond to each other’s thoughts and feelings more compassionately, more caringly. For only then can they overcome what’s made them so “gun-shy”—unable or unwilling to more fully “divulge” themselves to the other and let themselves be truly known.

As Hendrix eloquently puts it, in an ideal relationship each partner “stands guard” over the other’s vulnerability. And that’s the key prerequisite for spouses to comfortably open up to each other. But lacking the confidence that their partner can be trusted to empathize with and validate them, the implicit goal of all relationships—that is, mental, physical and, especially, emotional intimacy—can never be realized.

Thus, what may have seemed like a communication problem to the couple was actually much more an emotional safety problem. And one, it should be added, with huge ramifications for other conflict areas in their relationship.

I once worked with a couple where the man was enormously frustrated by his wife’s apparent abhorrence of physical closeness. Although sometimes she’d dutifully “submit” to his sexual advances, she appeared to do so only to placate him and honor the marital contract. To the husband, she turned into petrified wood whenever he touched her—even at times when he wasn’t planning on asking for sex.

What he didn’t realize—and which she could never tell him because she still harbored so much shame about it—was that as a virgin in high school a boy she dated had raped her after getting her intoxicated. Moreover, he belligerently threatened to lie about the whole thing and blame her for his sexual violence if she dared share with anyone what happened.

Keeping it all inside, she harbored trauma-induced anxiety about sexual intimacy and basically dissociated whenever she and her husband made love. Unconsciously afflicted by a deep distrust of men, her body image had also been badly compromised by this terrifying event. She couldn’t help feeling “soiled” and “dirty”; her impulse being to hide her sexuality completely. And because, involuntarily, she experienced negative bodily sensations and intrusive images when her husband carnally approached her, she couldn’t respond to him in anything like the way he needed.

Having lost his patience and feeling emasculated by her many refusals, he’d gotten into the habit of calling her frigid—and worse. And as much pain as his aspersions caused her, and her constant guilt in so frequently denying him, she felt much too ashamed to tell him why she couldn’t feel comfortable sexually engaging with him.

When I met with the two of them, both defined the problem as her lack of libido. But when (gently!) I was able to get her to talk about her rape (quite obvious to me because of the pattern she described), her husband’s attitude toward her transformed, his deep resentments immediately softening. He was now able to compassionately understand that her exaggeratedly adverse physical reactions to him weren’t actually rejections but desperately protective measures beyond her ability to control. And when she agreed to do the individual work required to resolve her trauma, both her acceptance of her body and her native sexuality blossomed.

But most important, both of them could now recognize that her seeming “coldness," the alleged problem, ultimately wasn’t the problem at all. It was her abiding sexual fears, even panic, because deep down her psyche couldn’t distinguish between normal erotic expression and sexual assault. What therapy needed to accomplish wasn’t to make her “warmer” but help her get over her trauma.

I could provide countless other examples of couples not understanding the root of their endlessly recycling arguments. But in the attempt not to make this post longer than necessary, I’ll just enumerate some additional areas of couples’ conflict and suggest what might underlie, or give fuel to, their continuing discord.

My explanations are meant only to be suggestive. The veiled dynamics of each couple’s strife varies. Still, if you can recognize yourself in one (or several) of these representative issues, ask yourself what this concern might signify in your relationship, which may well differ from what you’d assumed up till now.

You constantly argue about handling your finances.

Might the deeper issue be that you don’t feel you’re given as much a voice in determining such decisions as is your partner, and therefore feel demeaned, dismissed, or disrespected? Does your partner make you feel “less than,” because your income is lower than his, or you’re staying at home to care for the children? Do you need the relationship to be egalitarian but feel it’s essentially authoritarian, and that you’re powerless to change it? Do you feel that he (or she) believes their monetary needs are more important than yours? Do you have an essentially different value system on spending vs. saving. And so on.

You can’t agree on how to bring up your kids.

Did you come from vastly different family backgrounds, such that what you were taught as the right way to behave seriously contradicts what your partner learned? If so, does your position on how your children should be disciplined routinely get invalidated, or disconfirmed, because your spouse is made extremely uncomfortable by your contrasting (parent-induced) biases? If both of you regularly quarrel over the subject—mutually feeling righteous about what constitutes “correct” parenting—you’ll be stuck in a cycle where no resolution is possible.

So the whole issue comes down not to who’s right and who’s wrong, but what feels appropriate to each of you based on your family’s child-rearing practices. And that’s how the issue needs to be approached. And frankly, contemporary books on state-of-the-art parenting, such as Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, probably should be given more authority on how to deal with the typical challenges of parenting than either of you could realistically have based on your upbringing.

Rather than lengthen this piece excessively through more examples, I’ll simply list some other areas where many couples get stuck and leave it to you—if any of the below “arenas” reflect your own relationship battles—to determine what the real, hidden issue(s) might be.

So, do you disagree on, and frequently fight over:

  • Religious matters?
  • Household chores and responsibilities?
  • Sexual relations: Their frequency, what sorts of sexual expression are acceptable, etc.? (Note: This is an area where much anxiety and self-doubt is likely to govern your perceptions.)
  • Matters of philosophy and ideology?
  • Individual and marital aims and goals, and their relative priority?
  • Together time vs. alone (or solitude) time?
  • Proper behavior: What’s okay, reasonable, or correct?
  • Dealing with parents and in-laws?
  • Recreational matters: How often to take vacations, where to go, what to do, how much money to spend, etc.?
  • Friends: Namely, which are acceptable to whom, and why (must they, for instance, be of the same gender), how much time is okay to spend with them, and so on?
  • Displays of affection: How much, what kind, when and where?
  • Making major decisions generally?

If you recognize you and your partner in any of these domains, now may be the perfect time to revisit them. And to do so from a more "educated" vantage point with greater empathy, compassion, tolerance...and wisdom.

For when you can approach your problems differently, solutions not yet imagined can finally become a reality.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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