In life as a couple, it’s not uncommon for a certain thought to disturb, assault and even destabilize us: How is it possible that the other person is doing that thing that bugs us, again? In reality, hiding behind common quarrels about washing the dishes or spending too much time on our phone are needs, vulnerabilities and biases that can be triggered over and over again. Marion Solomon and Daniel J. Seigel, authors of Healing Trauma, a book that delves into how relationships can affect our brain and mental state, write, “the greater the intimacy with another person, the more likely that emotions, even archaic ones, will emerge, along with primitive defenses. A therapeutic approach… help[s] partners acknowledge their sense of vulnerability, discover its roots, tolerate waves of emotion, and find ways to address the underlying pain.”
Ester Perel, couples therapist, explains that if it upsets us that our partner is not looking up from their iPad when we get into bed with them, for example, it’s not exactly that absent gaze that triggers us. “If our partner makes time every week to play tennis with their friend, but doesn’t show interest in planning a weekly date night, it may trigger our insecurity that they don’t actually want to be with us or that we’re not enough for them. In both cases these triggers act as a funnel to our senses of abandonment and failure. And when these triggers compound over time, it creates a lens through which we view every interaction. So, if we think that our partner doesn’t care about us, then everything they do will be interpreted through that lens. Conversely, if we think that our partner wants our wellbeing, we will interpret most of what they say and do from that angle,” explains the relationships expert, who just launched an eight-part course called “Turning Conflict Into Connection.”
In a society that both avoids and is polarized by conflict, we hardly have the necessary tools to manage fights. Perel invites us to learn how to handle quarrels, and to read into what is behind them.
During an interview on the most important program on Scandinavian television, Perel explains that when couples fight repeatedly about something, the real cause can always be reduced to three factors: power, care and recognition. “Underneath, most couples are fighting for power and control — whose priority matters more, who gets to make the decisions,” she says in an interview with The Cut.
The type of arguments linked to care and closeness can have to do with the question of why a couple is no longer having sex or one’s inability to support the other person when they are experiencing anxiety, instead of questioning their ability to deal with issues. Cristina Soria, author of El libro que salvará tu relación de pareja [The book that will save your relationship], says, “When I need something from my partner and they don’t do it, I get angry and frustrated. We all want our partner to be proactive. But if they’re not, the easiest and most practical option is to ask them.” Sonia Encinas, author of Sexo afectivo [Affective sex], adds: “It would be too much to ask of ourselves that we force our partner to change, to offer us the type of care that they don’t give us or to emphasize with us. That is the other person’s job, and they will have take responsibility for it. If not, tremendous wear and tear takes place. Of course, we can ask for what we need, take responsibility for our own needs and express them. But it’s up to the other person whether they do it or not.”
Of course, it is vital to take into account the context of each fight and understand what issues lie beneath these repeated arguments to be able to have more productive conversations. Fights that are tied to respect and recognition can be triggered in moments in which one partner does not praise the professional achievements of the other, or does not take into account the effort that they put into doing chores around the house. Soria says: “Respect is essential for a relationship between equals in which there are boundaries that are not crossed. Admiration and recognition, from my point of view, makes me value the positive in the other person. We are used to focusing on the other person’s flaws, but seeing and recognizing their talents brings us back to admiration. It’s important to see the other person from their most positive side.”
How to exit the spiral
To get out of a repetitive loop of fights and deconstruct ingrained dynamics, Perel says on her blog, one must build new patterns of mutual self-recognition and affirmation for the other person. For her part, Encinas underlines the importance of knowing how to detect our emotions when they surface, give them the space they need and learn how to manage them. “It’s true that in our closest and most trusted environment, we express ourselves in a way that on occasion, when we are in front of everyone else and have the intention of protecting our public image, we don’t show the same intensity, especially when we have the rational capacity to process before we respond. There are other moments in which our instincts jump out, and we aren’t capable of controlling them,” says the coach, sexologist and expert in gender. It’s not always clear if people who fight love each other, but we are convinced that those who do, and who delve into the reasons behind their recurring arguments, will understand each other better.
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