What I said and what you heard…

In many relationships, what one person says and what their partner thinks they mean can be quite different. So a simple comment from one of them such as, ‘John was late for school again this morning’ can immediately have the other one thinking, ‘and that’s my fault, is it? There she goes again, I can’t do anything right’. Before they know it, another argument is off and running with growing anger and frustration on both sides.

This has been happening a lot when Finn and Margaret* arrive for their third session of couple relationship therapy with me. They take their seats and as we greet one another, I notice that the ‘weather’ in the room seems somewhat frosty.

‘So, Margaret,’ I say cheerfully, ‘how do you think Finn is feeling tonight?’. ‘He’s mad at me,’ says Margaret. ‘We had a big fight last night and now he’s not talking to me.’ I turn to Finn. ‘Is that right, Finn? You’re mad at her and you’re not talking to her?’ ‘I’m not mad at her,’ Finn replies, ‘I’m just really hurt. She never listens to me and we go round and round with the same arguments. I’m always in the wrong and it’s very hurtful.’

In couple relationship therapy I often suggest we unpick a recent fight, slowing it down in ‘freeze-frame moments’ to notice who said what and how that felt. ‘It seems it got quite heated,’ I say. ‘Let’s go through it and see if we can notice anything useful.’

We re-run Margaret and Finn’s fight like a play, line by line. It was about money – always a sensitive topic for this couple since one is a company employee with a regular monthly salary and the other is self-employed with an unpredictable income.

‘Finn said he was going to pay the rent this month,’ says Margaret, ‘and – yet again – he didn’t. So the landlord rang me and threatened to give us notice to quit. Finn lies about money all the time and then I’m supposed to dig us out of the hole.’ ‘I said I’m sorry,’ says Finn. ‘Yes, I did say I’d pay the rent this month but I just forgot. I’ve been out on site for twelve hours a day all week, you know that.’

‘What did you feel, Margaret,’ I ask, ‘when the landlord rang and you learned the rent hadn’t been paid?’  ‘I felt this awful lurch in my stomach,’ says Margaret. ‘Finn wants to split up with me. If he cared even a little about our relationship, he would at least remember to pay a bill.’

‘What did you feel, Finn,’ I ask, ‘when Margaret said you lie about money?’ ‘I felt so angry,’ he says. ‘She’s saying I’m dishonest and that’s not true. Of course I don’t want to split up with her but I’m working crazy hours just to hang onto my contract and I forgot to make the transfer.’

I ask how the fight ended. ‘He stormed out of the house,’ says Margaret. ‘And what did you feel then?’  ‘When I heard the front door slam I felt so lonely and scared. I wanted to run after him and call him back.’ I ask Finn what he felt as he left the house. Turning to Margaret, he says slowly, ‘I felt you hated me. I thought you just wanted me gone.’

As we re-run this dialogue in the session, we can catch the ‘what I said and what you heard’ moments that were flying by too fast the night before. It becomes clear that, at an unconscious level, Finn is afraid Margaret doesn’t love him. Margaret, in turn, is afraid Finn doesn’t care about her and wants to leave. They realise that while each is deeply committed to the relationship, at some level they share an unspoken fear that the other one is not.

The couple that says, ‘we never fight’ may be blissfully happy. But they may also be tiptoeing around unspoken issues that each is afraid to raise. This generally leads to trouble somewhere down the line, so here’s how to do it better.

Five tips for a healthy fight

·         Avoid ‘You always…’ and ‘You never…’ statements. They are likely to trigger an indignant ‘No I don’t!’ response from your partner which will only add fuel to the fire.

·         Slow down and start every sentence with ‘I feel…’. This way you’re sharing what you feel about the subject and you’re not sounding like you are accusing your partner or dictating what he or she is allowed to think and say.

·         Really listen to what your partner is telling you (they need to use the same ‘I feel..’ sentences). Remember that you don’t have to agree. They are sharing what they are feeling so even if that’s hard to hear, it’s always useful information.

·         Stop talking and call a time-out whenever an argument or fight starts to feel ‘too hot’. Agree how long the time-out is to last and stick to it (15 minutes, an hour, but never more than 24 hours). Come back and pick up the topic again but slower, sharing your own feelings rather than accusing your partner over his or her actions.

·         Remember it’s not the fight that matters, it’s how you come back from it. You may still disagree but you will understand each other a lot better.

* Names and scenarios are fictitious, based on composites of client sessions.

©  Eve O’Kelly 2020


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