Are you angry a lot with your partner? Or is your partner telling you that you are constantly angry?
Do you feel overwhelmed after a fight?
Do most discussions end up in an argument?
As humans, it's normal to have a tendency towards fight in a stressful encounter. That's a learned reaction from childhood to protect you. That's the function of anger. It's there to keep you safe.
But like all tendencies, there is a loss and a gain. The gain is you that you know you can depend on yourself. The loss is that you may find it harder to access softer emotions like fear and sadness. And being able to know when you are sad and scared and ask for comfort when you need are critical skills for thriving in a romantic relationship.
Oftentimes we are angry with our partner but really underneath we are feeling sad, scared and alone and can't or don't acknowledge that part to our partner. Because we may not even realize it ourselves. So our words come out in anger.
Unfortunately, our partner is not a mind reader and may not know that what I'm really saying through the angry words is help me. Come to me. Make me feel secure. I need you on my side here. I'm scared.
Not only will my angry tone and words get in the way of conveying my real need - for connection- they will inevitably trigger my partner's limbic brain and his fight/flight/freeze reaction which will end up with him standing there expressionless, or yelling back at me. And that leaves me feeling like he's not getting how I'm feeling and so I ramp up my anger even more in an attempt to get him to pay attention to how much I need him right now. And then he's totally overwhelmed and just leaves. And I'm left feeling abandoned.
Does this cycle sounds familiar? It's a common one - in 70% of couples.
The more stressors a couple is going through- such as a recent death or illness in the family, job stress, moves, lack of support, newly born children- the more likely they will get triggered into the negative cycles of interacting.
Relationships thrive on two people being able to be emotionally there for each other. And that requires the skills of
(1) being able to know my own emotions and (2) being able to express what I need to my partner. In a way that he can hear it.
In Emotionally Focussed Couple's Therapy, created by Couples' Expert, Dr. Sue Johnson, the therapist helps the couples first become aware of the negative cycle they are in. Then through learning how to notice and ask for what they really need, the couple creates a new, positive dance. Research from Sue Johnson's institute indicates that the change sustained can be long-term.
Fighting a lot does not mean that you need to break up. In fact, fight tells me there is hope.
It's when the fighters eventually both give up and withdraw and check out of the relationship that the couple is in trouble.
While you still have fight in you come into counselling and turn your negative cycle into a positive one. You'll thank yourself the next time a big life stressor comes along and you can count on your partner to be on your team rather than another stressor to deal with.
Johnson, S.M. (2004) The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection. New York, NY: Brunner Routledge.
Wiebe, S.A., & Johnson, S.M. (2016). Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy Research in the Last Decade. Family Process (Research Summary)– in press.