Hacking the Code of Marital Conflict
Why is it that some couples tend to have the same serious fights over and over again while others claim they never argue at all? Yet often NEITHER seem very happy!
How is it that we can feel loved and supported by our partner one minute, and in the next, we can feel rejected, hated or controlled by them?
Here, I’m going to share a case study of one of my clients so you can better understand why marital conflict tends to get stuck in a vicious cycle and how to break free from it.
Recent advances in developmental neuroscience and the study of emotions have revealed a peculiar feature of human behavior that subtly, but profoundly, impacts all of our lives. Its influence operates like a hidden program, quietly yet persistently shaping our perceptions, conclusions, intentions and actions behind the scenes, all outside of our awareness.
To best understand this unique characteristic, think of how we take for granted that the basic differences between children, adolescents, and adults are understood as the result of moving progressively beyond each previous stage of development.
The common assumption being that one never reverts to a previous stage once we’ve matured past it. As it turns out, in some surprising and powerful ways, this is completely false. But we almost never recognize it when it happens, and yet it may be the underlying cause of some of the most confusing & contradictory behavior we engage in with each other.
For example, I worked with a husband and wife (I’ll call them Ellen & Tom) who decided to try therapy because they had been fighting for a long time about the same issues, without any successful resolution.
Now, as a habit, I always ask people for their take on what may be going on with them, and they both reported that much of the time, they have a very happy and satisfying relationship, but Ellen confessed that she’d been struggling with anxiety and depression her whole life, and that she knows she doesn’t live up to Tom’s expectations.
Ellen was referring to a range of issues including their sexual relationship, decisions about money & parenting, and even managing their day to day plans. Although he initially tried to be gentle about his agreement with her, it became clear just how angry Tom really was, and has been for a long time.
To deal with the situation, Ellen had been in therapy for a number of years and also tried a range of medications to help her manage her symptoms. But regardless of whether her mood improved, things never really changed between them.
When they fought, Tom would often berate her for not giving him the respect he felt he deserved, while she collapsed, simultaneously apologizing and trying to talk him out of being so upset with her.
During the course of treatment, Ellen shared that her father abandoned her family when she was little, and her mother never really recovered. She drank a lot and sometimes took her grief and anger out on Ellen. Her worst memories of these episodes included blaming her for his leaving.
In stark contrast, Tom reported a uniformly positive experience growing up, feeling like life has always pretty much gone his way.
So through the lens of these important developmental experiences, we can see that having grown up with feelings of grief & guilt over her father’s abandonment, it’s understandable that Ellen might be predisposed to having an underlying sense of dread that if she made him too upset, her own husband may one day want to do the same.
Indeed, Tom acknowledged that he only felt at peace when his needs were being met by her. So, when he confronted her at times when he wasn’t happy, Ellen would berate herself and plead for him to be nicer, which Tom unfortunately interpreted as merely being self-absorbed and unwilling to deliver what he asked for. Which of course spiraled the reinforcement of hurt and insecurity about the relationship for them both.
For ease of communication here, we would say Ellen lived in fear of Tom’s anger toward her, and when it occurred, it caused her to become flooded with dread that history would repeat itself if she didn’t do something to fix the situation. But in being flooded, she collapsed into self-blame, distraught apologies, and helpless pleading for him to forgive her and be nicer to her.
We refer to these circumstances as becoming “stuck” in the CHILD MINDSET….
For his own part, Tom’s persistent anger and insistence on her compliance in gratifying his needs shows that he is preoccupied with an inflexible demand for the situation between them to go HIS way. To the apparent exclusion of all else.
We refer to these circumstances as reflective of the ADOLESCENT MINDSET in action…
SO, in essence, here we have two otherwise healthy adults, who are unaware that they are reacting to the similarity of past emotionally significant circumstances, and it causes them to fail to relate to the situation between them in the here and now.
For Ellen, associations with the past are uniformly negative, and she is unaware she is unproductively seeking the futile goal of trying to prevent another devastating loss from occurring.
For Tom, on the other hand, the experience of reliably having his needs met in the past stands as a solidly positive and desirable experience, which is severely contrasted by the frustrating situation of today. He is unaware of his own lack of cooperative skills and he ineffectively deals with the problem by attempting to force a return to the “good old days.”
In contrast, the ADULT MINDSET approaches conflict in a completely different way. The most significant difference here is the presence of commitment to a balance between concern for meeting our own needs, AND the commitment to making sure our spouse’s needs are taken care of as well.
In other words, where the Child and Adolescent Mindsets are dominant, conflict tends to play out like a competition that can only result in either an unproductive stalemate or a costly victory at the expense of harmony in the relationship. Like a terrible game of musical chairs.
On the other hand, when we learn to operate from our Adult Mindset, conflict is approached from the perspective of solving problems as a team. Here, we recognize that the only way to REALLY win, is to cross the finish line together. Like in a three legged race.
So, how do we figure out which Mindsets we tend to operate from and why?
And once we figure it out, how do we catch ourselves when we’re stuck in our Child or Adolescent Mindsets and refocus our approach to be more consistent with the Adult Mindset?
One option is, if you’d like to learn more about the Mindsets on your own, check out the Emotions University!
Here, you can sign up for our classes on the Mindsets and explore on your own how they work, how they affect your personal and relational life, how to understand what we can do to catch ourselves when we are stuck in the Child or Adolescent Mindset, and what you can do about it!.
The second option is for you to receive individual or couples counseling. If you would like extra support in your relationship, schedule an appointment today.
Together, we will help you and your partner get unstuck so you can improve your personal life as well as your relationships.