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Does Bickering Pretty Much Define Your Relationship?

Here are two ways for couples to escape their maddening cycle of criticism.

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

The above title might seem to smack of hyperbole. But as a therapist I’ve seen this dismal pattern of contentiousness all too often. So how do couples get to such a point that there’s unending friction, or recycling animosity, between them? That just about everything has become “bicker-worthy” (my own infelicitous coinage)?

Typically, by the time such couples come in for counseling, they’ve been at an impasse for months, even years. And given the stubborn longevity of their deadlock, and the serious harm it’s already caused the relationship, I’ve come to see my work with them as “11th hour therapy.” In fact, once when I shared this with a couple, their reaction was “No . . .11:59.”

It’s crucial, therefore, to understand just how such endless stalemates arise. And more important, when they’ve persisted this long, what the remedies are to treat them.

The Problem: How Anger Masks Old Wounds—and at a Really High Price

Like virtually everything else in troubled relationships, the core explanation for both their distress is that, deep down, they’re hurting. And what more than anything else has created this pain is criticism—common, everyday, habitual criticism. Over time, it’s become a knee-jerk reaction to almost anything that comes out of their mouths. And, strange to say, it’s also involuntary—no longer under their control. Because even the pettiest thing can set them off.

Doubtless, for many people this isn’t an easy concept to grasp. Namely, that a relationship, because it’s been stuck indefinitely in “attack/defend/withdraw” mode, can become so fraught with tension that both partners get on edge merely by being in the same room together. Even when one partner asks the other a simple question, the recipient assumes that whatever answer is given will be disparaged. So no query can be taken as “innocent,” as not negatively motivated.

Once anything that’s said passes automatically through a negative filter, it comes out contrarily distorted—in ways that then “justify” the other’s righteous anger and irritation. And this woeful cycle of relational distress, as destructive and even non-volitional as it is, can’t really absolve the couple of responsibility either.

Which is paradoxical. For the misery each causes the other, though it might seem downright sadistic, doesn’t really represent any sort of conscious, malignant strategy on either of their parts. That is, neither partner is trying to fabricate conflict through deliberately spiteful behavior. Like the vicious cycle itself, their individual moves are best regarded as “autonomous.” However perverse, they now have a mind—or will—of their own.

And that’s just another way of saying that their interactions are no longer regulated by a rational, judicious adult brain. Rather, the two have devolved into a negative, childlike reflexiveness with one another. Their words and actions actually depict powerful psychological defenses operating just below the surface of awareness. If in fact these defenses were to become conscious, and the two begin to experience them as voluntary, they could then come under conscious control—and, consequently, subject to change.

If there’s anything that could be viewed as fatal to an intimate relationship, it’s regularly feeling criticized by your partner. As I’ve emphasized in so many of my posts on marriage, your primal, survival brain barely distinguishes between physically assaults and verbal attacks. Quite simply, words—or, we might say, “cutting, stabbing, piercing” words—hurt. And whenever you experience such pain, you’re compelled either to defend against it in whatever way most suits your nature or (in retaliation) is most likely to negatively affect your partner. (And sometimes, as is frequently noted, “The best defense is a good offense.”)

So, feeling aggressed against, in your efforts to protect yourself and restore some sense of safety, you might attack back or archly defend yourself. Or, as a third option, you might, through some form of withdrawal, simply refuse to stay engaged with your attacker. These three reactions might be characterized as counter-aggressive, defensive, or passive-aggressive. And sadly, none of these reactions can restore feelings of harmony or understanding between you.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. When we enter into a committed relationship, we somehow have the (largely unconscious) expectation that our partner will validate who we are and quell whatever old self-doubts still reside within us. And because we tend to identify ourselves with our viewpoints, whenever our significant other criticizes us or has a perspective sharply contrasting with our own we feel threatened, our relational safety now (seemingly) at risk.

We’re now subconsciously invaded by childhood emotions of fear, sorrow, insecurity, or shame. Though inadvertently, our partner has brought much too close to the surface ancient doubts and anxieties—typically from our family of origin—about not being good enough to deserve others’ validation, love or support.

Because all along we’ve focused on our partner’s healing these wounds, we haven’t really appreciated that they have wounds, too—wounds that (however unknowingly) they’ve been expecting us to heal. So neither of us can help but react negatively when our spouse’s unintentionally insensitive behavior reminds us of childhood hurts we’ve never fully recovered from.

The Solution: Getting to What Underlies the Anger—and Healing It

Over a century ago Freud described therapy as making the unconscious conscious. And given that most of us aren’t that psychologically-minded, it’s hard to know how to escape the damaging relationship cycle that's entrapping us. Except, that is, to be “nicer” to each other. And that really can’t resolve a relationship’s underlying issues, which is why such endeavors almost always fail. Generally, a qualified therapist is required to help effect the relationship repair work that practically—without this deeper understanding—may be impossible to achieve on our own.

If, nonetheless, you and your spouse would like to try to resolve your frustrations independently, here’s what might be most helpful. But the main caveat here is that if any part of what I’m suggesting simply results in new subjects to fight over, your negative relationship dynamic may be so powerful that bringing in a third party—a professional who is genuinely caring, but also more objective and detached—may be essential.

Anyhow, in broad terms, here are two things that potentially could make a major difference in your never-ending battles:

1. Learn as much as you can about the other’s childhood wounds—mental and emotional (and possibly physical, too).

Might each of you be willing to explore and expand your awareness of disturbing issues from your past? And, maybe going all the way back to early childhood, might you be willing to make yourself vulnerable enough to share issues you had with your parents, siblings, peers, etc.? Issues that, if you truly allow yourself to delve into them, you recognize as never having been totally resolved—that still carry an uncomfortable emotional charge?

And next, would you be willing to share how in this relationship the other’s adverse comments and criticisms have served to revivify these old wounds? And to find a way of doing so without actually blaming them? For if your angry reactions have struck your spouse as overblown, not really proportionate to any immediate provocation, it’s because, unwittingly, they’ve brought these still painful memories too close to consciousness. Which helps account for their defensive reaction toward you—which, in turn, triggers (or re-triggers) your own toward them.

And that, of course, pinpoints the so-regrettable cycle I’ve been alluding to.

Most couples, once they already feel estranged from one another, are extremely hesitant to try what I’m proposing here. For by now they automatically assume that the other will use any personal disclosure as yet another opportunity to react critically, or use this new information to gain an advantage over them. Or will be, well, “bicker-worthy.” Nonetheless, though divulging your soft spots might seem like going out on an awfully shaky limb, it’s essential to do so if the relationship is to be redefined as one that can offer the support, empathy, and understanding that’s been so sorely missing.

To help jog your memory of the past, in growing up did you, for example, worry that you weren’t good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough? Did you feel you were a disappointment to your family or others—that in some way you were inadequate, inferior, unworthy, hopeless, or useless? Or maybe alone, unimportant, not normal or likeable, listened to, or cared about? Or possibly guilty or shameful? Might you have had issues relating to trust, safety, or freely expressing your feelings? And so on. . . .

Ideally, this could be a time for each of you to develop a greater understanding of, and empathy for, the other’s past pain. And with such increased comprehension and compassion, it could also increase your motivation to be a lot more careful in how you speak and respond to each other.

As an addendum here, consider that ultimately it’s not really your partner’s responsibility to heal your past hurts. Certainly, once they know what they are, they ought to make a conscious effort not to “revitalize” them. But you need to figure out —with the help of a therapist or with the many excellent articles and books on the subject—how you can accomplish your own self-repair work.

2. Start to heal earlier wounds coming from the relationship itself.

Earlier I published a piece called “6 Steps to Resolve Relationship Conflicts, Once and for All,” which involved each partner’s going into the other’s “hurt museum.” What I detailed there is how a couple could safely revisit earlier hurts in their relationship that, still unresolved, remained emotionally charged—leading each to harbor negative biases toward the other.

When couples bring everything into arguments but the proverbial kitchen sink, typically the intrusive topics entering the fray are those past events that still carry a prickly sting. So without putting these former provocations emotionally to rest—without, that is, getting them rectified—they’ll continue to hang like clouds threatening to rain down on the two of you at any moment. This is why, between unresolved fears and sorrows from your distant past, as well as more recent disappointments from your current relationship, even petty grievances can easily deteriorate into acrimonious altercations. When the present, however unconsciously, harks back to the past, reactions can be woefully “super-sized.”

Because doing this couples repair work is so challenging, I’d recommend you read one or more of the best books that deal with resolving couples conflict. Here are four of my personal favorites:

John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want

Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight

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Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For

These works (and there are many other fine books out there to consult) discuss the skills and mind-set needed to help work through longstanding marital issues. And more than anything else, what such an undertaking requires is the courage, motivation, and commitment to take the risks involved in making yourself more vulnerable to your partner. And, too, the willingness to get beyond the arguments encircling the two of you to discern what they’re really about.

So, are you prepared to proceed on this most challenging relationship journey? . . .

NOTE: Of the numerous posts I’ve written for couples, here are five that most closely complement this one: “Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands-Down?”, “Couples: Do You Argue About ‘A’ When the Real Issue is ‘B’?”, “3 Reasons Why Couples Have the Same Fights Over and Over,” "To Accommodate or Confront: The Key Relationship Question," and “Can You and Your Partner Agree to Disagree?”

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.