Have you ever had the same fight with your spouse over and over? I thought so.
You know what it looks like, feels like, smells like. You could probably write a script for the way it’s going to go.
It’s that fight. You know the one.
You’ve had it 100 times with your spouse, and it just won’t die. You’ve tried being nice, you’ve tried being nasty. You’ve tried being direct, you’ve tried being passive. It doesn’t matter what approach you take, because it’s the Fight That Never Ends.
Before you hang up your towel and declare your spouse a sorry loser who’ll just never see the value in sanitized kitchen counters, let me throw out another piece to this eons-old argument.
It’s not about germy counters.
I know that’s what it looks like it’s about, and on some level, it kind of is. But if you’ve had the same argument about the same thing over and over, I bet it’s not about what you think you’re fighting about. I’d venture to say that at some point, your relationship became the problem, and that’s the thing that fuels the arguments and keeps you from solving the problem.
The Fight Isn’t About the Fight
If the real fight is about your relationship, poor Mr. Germy Counter Problem needs to get shelved until the relationship problem is resolved. Once everything between the two of you feels safe, loving, and secure, then you can put your heads together to figure out a solution to keeping the kitchen clean.
In every interaction, especially during and right after a fight, each partner is looking for the answer to the question, “Do you love me?” In relationships, we all need to feel connected and loved. If we don’t, we feel a threat to our relationship, and insecurity begins to set in. PAY ATTENTION TO THIS. Marriages begin to die if spouses stop responding to, paying attention to, and caring about each other’s emotions.
Find the relationship question and develop emotional intimacy
Since emotional intimacy is crucial to marital success, let’s take a look at the three ways we ask, “Do You Love Me?”
The first part of our quest for attachment surety sounds something like:
Even if my emotions bring up difficult emotions for you, can you still tune into my feelings and make them matter?
Talking to our spouse about his or her emotions can sometimes make us feel afraid or insecure. However, if it’s their turn to talk, we may need to get a grip on our feelings so that we can really tune in to what it’s like to be them. We may even struggle a little bit to understand our own feelings so that they won’t be so overwhelming, but, in order to let our spouses know that we will listen to their feelings and make them matter, that struggle may be necessary.
The second way we seek to learn about the state of our marital attachment goes like:
Can I count on you to respond to my emotions?
Often, we react instead of respond to our spouse’s emotions, and reacting tends to feed conflict. Responding means keeping the focus on your spouse and letting them know that you care about their feelings. It’s an important way that you can comfort them and express your love. Let them know that their emotions have an impact on you and that their feelings are a priority for you. If your spouse hears and experiences you respond to their feelings, they will feel safety, love, and security in the relationship.
The third way sounds like:
Will you care about me and stay close to me emotionally?
Our spouses need to know that we will really value how they feel. This means that we will give them attention that communicates our captivation, attractedness, and involvement. Do you remember when you were dating and loved to gaze dreamily at each other? That’s being really engaged with someone. Our spouses need to know that we still desire that same closeness and that we care about them enough to want to be emotionally intimate.
Pearl S. Buck writes,
“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart.”
We all need emotional intimacy; so the next time “The Fight” comes up, try something different. Take a step back from what you’re fighting about and see if you can find these relationship questions. Think about your spouse and ask yourself if they feel loved. Once you start looking for these underlying relationship questions, you’ll start to see your arguments in a whole new light. Make the focus loving your partner well; address the relationship questions and be sure your spouse knows that you can and want to handle any feelings they bring you. When both people feel secure, then love and mutual valuing permeate the marriage, AND it’s easier to solve the actual problem. Goodbye, Mr. Germy Counter Fight!
PS- Read more about Dr. Sue Johnson’s work in emotionally focused couple therapy in her very practical book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.