Paul Greene PhD, Clinical Psychoologist in New Rochelle.
Debating, Explaining, or Defending: It’s All the Same Thing.
Why do couples fight? Most often, their deepest senses of connection are damaged by the words they use. Although their hearts may be in the right place at times, saying the wrong things can cause lasting damage. Fighting can occur over small and large issues. Each person triggers the others until they both end up in a place they don’t want to be. Let’s explore this to uncover the right things to say.
Why fights can get ugly
Language analysis shows that, in arguments, couples aren’t actually addressing each other’s concerns but are misperceiving each other’s reactions and responding to the wrong concerns, leading to mangled communication. As if automatic repetition and volume were sufficient to overcome the lack of understanding, people who speak foreign languages tend to repeat words and their voices become louder. Like unintended insults that are not quickly addressed become lasting sensitivities, old injuries to one’s sense of self can be reignited. These sensitivities and old injuries can be remnants of one’s personal history and trauma. The cycle of hurt feelings and louder voices can cause a negative impact on their relationship. This can alter their perceptions of one another and lead to disastrous consequences. Even the most loving of couples can suffer from poor communication that causes distance, disconnection and even hatred that can lead them to divorcing.
Are you in a similar position?
- I thought that we were having a civil conversation. Why are you so angry? (You are being unreasonable, too emotional and not listening.
- You questioned my motives and I was explaining the reasons I did what I did. It is important to understand the context.
- I wasn’t doing something wrong. Shouldn’t it? Why all the anger? (Underlying message – You are being unreasonable and too emotional, and you are not listening.
- If we have a healthy debate about the facts, we can make a decision on who was right and who was wrong. That isn’t a personal insult. We both want the right solution, don’t we? Why are you so mad? (Underlying message – You are being unreasonable and too emotional, and you are not listening.
Does this sound like an argument you’ve had, and you still don’t understand why it turned into a fight? This has happened many times? Are you frustrated that it will happen again? Will both of you do the same thing yet somehow expect a different outcome, even though you know it won’t?
Continue reading to find out why your conversations are going south and how you can turn them around.
Defense Versus Understanding
You may disagree, however, the reactions cited above can be defensive and worsening things. By defensive, I mean defending your actions and ideas — I’m not referencing Freud here, but the sense that you can’t deal with whatever emotions are emanating from your unconscious. You are simply refuting what was said and not communicating that what was being said was true. You are defending your actions, protesting that you haven’t done anything wrong and that your actions were justified. You are telegraphing negative or overt criticism. Your partner is being unreasonable and emotional and you are not listening.
You are most likely right. They aren’t listening. They are very emotional. They are not being reasonable. So are you. Who will be the grown-up? Or will you have to argue about it?
You might protest to me that I am answering what was being asked of you. No, you aren’t. You don’t even show that you know what was said to you. You might have heard the words but not the meaning.
How Are You Processing What You’re Hearing?
The meaning of everything is important. If you were to ask yourself, “What was the meaning of what was said?” and then ask the person with whom you are talking if your understanding was correct, the conversation could turn in a more promising direction. If you were to ask yourself, “What was the feeling behind those words?” — and ask again if your perception of the meaning and feelings were correct, you would be almost halfway to a much better conversation. Be aware of your reactions and feelings to what was said. We’ll get there in due time. First, we must validate our understanding and confirm that it is accurate if we want to have healthy, productive conversations. The conversation can be very productive if you are able to do everything.
But if you simply follow your feelings and react, chances are that your response will be defensive reactions that refute or explain actions but don’t validate your partner’s experience. This is the impulsive attempt to justify, or put into context, the reasons behind actions being questioned and attacked. It can also be called gaslighting, which is convincing someone to doubt their own beliefs. Consciously gaslighting can be dangerous and can be very harmful. To be explicitly understood is affirming, positive.
Validating another’s experience is not the same as agreeing with them. It is only affirming that they understand your position. You may or may not agree with the confirmation that you have reached correct understanding. Sometimes, when we hear what we just said out loud, we realize that we haven’t expressed ourselves properly and our position softens. Being able to listen can help you gain self-awareness, and insight. Understanding can lead to mutual understanding. What is the most likely outcome from mutual misunderstanding? It’s not what you want.
Healthy and unhealthy responses to partner conflicts
There are healthy and unhealthy ways to respond to the defensive pattern I’m calling. Stuffing your feelings and letting them turn into silent but hardened resentments — that’s unhealthy. So is becoming aggressive with mean words or intimidation, trying to talk louder until you scream over the other’s voice. Aggressiveness and unresolved resentments can build up and become destructive. Worse, one party may decide to end the relationship and either unknowingly or knowingly end it.
The hard part is to develop new, healthy habits and patterns. It can be very difficult to change deeply ingrained habits. Emotionally delivered criticism can feel like an assault on one’s deepest sense of self. It is difficult to stop lashing out, which is almost an instinctive, automatic reaction to what feels like an assault. The promise of change is that it will bring more benefits than its cost.
What does it mean to be healthy?
This is how you can make change easier.
- Healthy is understanding your emotions and being able to express it accurately.
- Healthy is being able to listen to what is being expressed about the other person, appreciating that this isn’t about you at that moment. They are hurt, angry, upset, or both. They shout to be heard. Being more open to listening than responding immediately is a way to be healthier.
- Healthy is finding a way for your partner to feel heard.
- Healthy does not mean automatically believing your understanding is correct. Instead, use thoughtful words to validate your understanding.
These new healthy patterns and reactions are a sign that you care about understanding others. Even if your understanding of the other person is incorrect, you are still showing that you care by trying their perspective.
Prioritize Accurate understanding and Expressing It With Sensitivity
Many people mistakenly assume that they know everything, even though they don’t. This leads to people reflexively explaining why they don’t understand and why the others are wrong. This is a criticism no matter how you describe it. You should think about this: Do you really expect that they will accept your criticisms in the heat of the moment? How often can criticism be constructive when angry, hurt, or raw emotions are driving the conversation?
Do they understand you even if you don’t? Do they feel understood? How do you know? Remember, this isn’t about you at this time. It will be later. Or your relationship will be in serious trouble. Relationships that are one-sided can be disastrous for either one of you or, more often, both. This is the only way to go.
What to do in the Moment
Listen first, then paraphrase what you hear to confirm your understanding. Can you manage your emotions without reacting too much? If you can’t, you have a problem that has to be addressed, perhaps separately. Let’s assume for now that you have sufficient self-control and can listen accurately and express yourself coherently enough to be understood. If the one to whom you are speaking can’t understand your coherent request to verify what you thought was said, then they have a problem that may also have to be addressed separately.
Working one-on-one with a therapist is one of the best ways to cultivate the skills and healthy internal life you’ll need in life and in relationships. To find the best therapist for your needs, start looking in your area for a therapist. You can use filters to narrow down your results and browse profiles of therapists to help you choose the right therapist.
If, in trying these techniques, we find that listening and communicating sensitively are impossible with a couple’s current skills, we have to question their capacity to have a successful relationship without addressing these issues. Every mutually satisfying relationship needs to have both parties at least able to listen and speak, even if they can’t talk to each other about controversial issues. These skills can be improved but they must first exist. If they don’t exist, if the ability to listen, understand and express themselves isn’t present, individual therapy may be the answer. Those skills create relationships in which problems can be resolved, mutually acceptable solutions can be found, and fighting doesn’t become destructive.
Listening thoughtfully, comprehending compassionately, and setting aside your feelings to accurately confirm the other’s experiences are skills that you can improve, refine, and harness to strengthen your ability to fulfill that most fundamental human need, connection.
This page will help you find a couple counselor if your relationship could benefit from counseling. They can be married and family therapists, psychologists, social workers, counselors in mental health, or marriage counselors.
© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Paul Greene PhD, Clinical Psychoologist in New Rochelle. Permission to publish granted