Recently during a couple’s counseling session, one partner turned to me and asked me to “fix” their partner so that picking fights wouldn’t be their go to defense mechanism anymore. I explained to both members of the couple that conflict in relationships isn’t reduced by eradicating our partner’s defense mechanisms alone. Instead, I asked my couple to have curiosity and compassion for each other’s defense mechanisms, and more importantly, what led to the development of these specific defenses in the first place.
I clarified that people do not develop their defenses randomly or superfluously. They develop them because they served to protect them from harm or perceived harm when they were little and didn’t have all the cognitive/emotional/physical resources they now have as adults.
What happens in adult romantic relationships is that our partner can do something, or fail to do something, that makes us feel under threat. This triggers the very same defenses that developed in childhood. And, when those defenses are triggered in the present, we feel exactly as if we are that little boy or girl again. The executive function area of our brain goes offline, so we have difficulty reasoning, understanding our partner’s perspective, and weighing the consequences of our words and actions (cue the fight picking).
It’s true that our brains are wired to respond in our primitive ways when we are under threat. But this doesn’t mean that we inevitably have to re-litigate the same fight over and over again. It means that the best way to reduce perpetual fights is to have curiosity and compassion for the original wounds that have stayed tender way past childhood and show up in our relationship with our significant other.
The beauty of having an attuned significant other is that they actually can re-wire our brains (change how we handle conflict) by creating a sense of safety. So, for example, when one partner complains about the other spending too much money, what they could really be saying is that “I am so afraid for our safety and security. I need to see money in our account to know that things are going to be okay—even if there are millions of dollars in the account.”
If the significant other can understand the foundational fear, they can respond by saying “I know you have this fear of not having enough, you really struggled with this when you were young, but we are financially solid now and you are safe. You don’t have to feel like all the financial burdens rest on your shoulders. We are a team and I am here to support you too”.
If one partner nags the other about their drinking too much, what they could really be saying is that, “I can’t count on you to be fully present for me when you are drinking. I’m afraid that I’ll need you and you won’t be there for me”.
Similarly, if one partner constantly complains that the other partner doesn’t help around the house enough, their real message could be, “I’m calling out to you for help and you aren’t hearing me. I feel invisible, and unimportant to you. I need to know that I matter to you, the one that matters most to me”.
When the accused partner understands the real pain behind the fighting words, it’s a lot easier for them to soften and assuage their significant other’s fears. This is what shuts down fights. Once fears are reduced, our brains are able to resume executive function abilities and we become more receptive to working things out with our partner. Not just in the moment, but change is sustained over the course of the relationship.
What’s more, this approach increases relationship closeness and intimacy because the aggrieved partner finally feels seen and heard.
So what are tips to reduce fighting in relationships?
1. When things aren’t emotionally heightened, both members of the couple should explore, using curiosity and compassion, their partner’s deepest fears. These are the longings and hurts that usually developed in their early years of life.
2. Again, when things are calm, the couple should look for the negative interaction cycle in their relationship. That is, how each other’s deep fears lead to actions that trigger the other’s defense mechanisms. This is the fuel that fires the fight.
3. Once the couple can start seeing when their negative interaction cycle is happening, and tensions are rising, they can dampen tensions by saying, “We’re cycling. My actions are causing you to act in a certain way that is protective for you but is scary for me. Let’s slow down and calm our reactions because we are both afraid. We are going into our protective modes because this relationship matters so much to both of us”.
4. Couples can then have a pre-arranged plan of action whether it be taking a break to calm down with an agreed upon time to resume the discussion. Or the couple can do something as simple as deep breathing together.
5. If it feels too scary to share your deepest fears with your partner, or if there are already too many wounds in the relationship that makes being vulnerable too difficult, this is probably a sign that you and your significant other can benefit from couples counseling.