One of my objectives in couples therapy is trying to encourage both people to feel safe enough to speak from a more vulnerable place. This can be very hard to do because of defensiveness and a history of unresolved problems. There is some exciting new research that may help couples learn to do this on their own.
Recently, Dr.Keith Sanford of Baylor University completed research with 3,539 couples. This link offers more details: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100624141517.htm In every fight each person has a deeper theme about what bothers them. There are two themes:
One person experiences the other as threatening, angry and controlling.
One person experiences the other as neglecting them, not understanding or valuing who they are.
In the picture accompanying this post it’s easy to imagine both of these positions. These two points of view fit together like pieces in a puzzle. This is why I never believe there’s a good guy or a bad guy. There are always two people who are both good & bad, who have things to learn about themselves. Respect is missing in both of these perspectives. Control and threats have an “I know what’s best” attitude. Feeling misunderstood or neglected has the flavor of “How could you do this to me?”. Mix these together and it’s easy to see why couples get stuck.
Respect is more important than love for the long haul. Respect can only emerge out of authentic dialogue. “You meddle in my affairs and are chock full of suggestions I don’t ask for. You rearrange my sock drawer when I’ve asked you not to. I need you to back off.” or “You work too much and seem to avoid being home which leaves me feeling lonely. We don’t even have sex anymore so I feel unattractive. If you make me more of a priority then I won’t be so angry.” Both points of view matter. Both people require change to make things better.
Very few people find the courage to step up to the plate, hang in there and do the hard work that long-term partnership requires. Hard work requires the angry one to back up, reduce the animosity and show appreciation for the neglected person. Making more room for the other person’s agenda and priorities. Hard work requires the neglected one to speak up and make themselves understood. Instead of silence or dumping out their concerns talk from the middle ground so you are more likely to be heard. Ask for the amends you are due. Success is worth the hard work of building infrastructure together.