It was deja-vu. Chris and Stephanie were arguing about dishes. Again. Her tolerance for a messy house was lower than ever since the baby came. His tolerance for being nagged or pushed was just as low. And so they bickered in circles. Tempers flared, ultimatums were declared and a familiar pattern played out until they both collapsed, each feeling isolated and exhausted. The whole thing would likely repeat tomorrow.
Repeating painful relationship patterns hurts. It makes us feel broken, hopeless. We wonder – Isn’t life hard enough with kids, dirty laundry, sexual frustration and work stress? What’s wrong with us? Why are we so dysfunctional?!
I’ve come to believe that our familiar patterns of conflict, far from being dysfunctional, actually have crucial functions to fulfill in the relationship, at least for a time.
After a few sessions with Stephanie and Chris, a pattern emerged –
Stephanie would launch into a complaint or grievance. Then before she could finish her thought, Chris would interrupt her and begin playing devil’s advocate, analyzing and reframing her experience. Specifically, he would emphasize their accomplishments or goals, putting a positive spin on the issue, or defending his actions –
“Yes, yes, yes, but you have to agree that we’ve gotten better.”
“Every time? Really? Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? Just the other day you said…”
Again and again Chris would hijack Stephanie’s thought mid-sentence. Even though we were working on the phone, I began to viscerally feel his anxiety and his need to manage (and effectively minimize) her experience. There was a sense of constant interruption, not just of the conversation, but of a deeper process that was trying to happen.
Stephanie and Chris were repeating their loop of criticism and defensiveness because it allowed each of them to avoid this deeper process for a little longer.
As we continued counselling it became clear that Stephanie was being confronted with the possibility that her husband would never meet her expectations. With a young child to raise, this was a terrifying prospect. Chris was being confronted with the flipside – The possibility that Stephanie would leave because he did not fulfill her expectations. “Not good enough” was the story of his childhood and the shadow that he avoided in his adult life.
These two underlying issues were creating enormous anxiety in each of them. Their conflict loop would allow them to discharge enough of this anxiety to remain relatively functional while continuing to avoid confronting their core issue.
Stephanie would focus on Chris’s minor daily infractions rather than addressing her own serious doubt about the relationship (facing the depth of her doubt might ultimately require her to make the difficult choice to either end the relationship or learn to accept Chris as he is – equally unappealing options). Chris would deflect and minimize Stephanie’s criticisms because he could intuit where they were potentially headed… ie – to his ultimate rejection and termination as partner. Chris had plenty of motivation to interrupt this process at every opportunity! Stephanie and Chris would unconsciously collude in seemingly pointless bickering so they could each avoid facing these most difficult aspects of their lives together.
Many couples find themselves stuck in conflict loops with similar functions – to avoid the deeper process that is lurking underneath. (By the way, I don’t pretend to always know what this deeper process is, or where it will lead. I only know that it wants attention.)
Next week we’ll look at the experience of Franz and Leila, another couple playing out relationship conflict with a surprising function.
Then in week three we’ll tie the pieces together and look more deeply at what is risked, and what is required to change these “functional” conflict patterns.
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