Tit For Tat; How Some Couples Cope…Guidance From A Marriage And Family Therapist

Many of us grew up needing to have the last word when we got into an argument.  It just doesn’t feel right if we can’t say what we have to say after the other person has said their piece.  We just want to finish the exchange with our own ending note.

It’s not uncommon to see this interaction when two people are discussing issues important to both of them.  It’s also not uncommon to see this type of behavior between two people who are in a relationship. He says one thing, she says another, he has to top her, she has to top him and so on.  We’ve all seen it; we may even have engaged in it.

On some level it can be satisfying, putting the other person in their place, having the last word and really saying or acting out something dramatic that makes our point.  Yes, sometimes we even feel better when we can have the last word and end with a flourish, like slamming a door, or stomping up stairs, or using a cuss word or flipping someone off.  There’s something very satisfying about really feeling like we have been heard.  Unfortunately, when two people are locked in this sort of contest no one is listening to the other; both are just waiting for their turn.

These dramatic moments can also cause harm to two people who are in a relationship. Sometimes there is real damage done during these matches, hurtful things are said, painful slights are seared into us.

Some of this sparing may remind us of squabbling with a sibling or a childhood friend. If we learned it at a young age we might even feel confidence when we spar with another person.  We may grow to rely on these skills as we get older and might even use them with our mate in our adult relationship.

Sometimes they are funny and can be laughed at in a calmer state.  But more often than not they are hurtful and leave wounds.  We carry around these scars and feel terrible and angry.  Maybe we get zinged, maybe we zing our beloved.  If we engage, it’s likely we leave something behind, some residue of hurt feelings that may get buried over the next time there is a spat.  Maybe we even compile all the zingers and hurl them back at each other reusing them again and again.

So what do we do about these actions?  Why not talk about them with our partner.  Why not have a discussion about how it feels to hurl these slights and how it feels to receive them.  Why not find out if there are some bruises left over from past arguments.  If the bruises are still tender chances are it’s possible to have some real connection with your mate.  Maybe you both agree on what you won’t say again.  Maybe if you are the offender you can apologize.  This can go a long way to healing pain.  What you don’t want is for couples to wall up against the other because of all the slights.  This can lead to resentment which can leave each person living behind his or her own wall of bricks, afraid to connect for fear of being hurt.

No couple wants to live with resentment toward their partner.  Living behind walls of resentment cuts down on closeness. And that’s really what couples want, to be close, to feel safe and loved, free from those hurtful zingers.

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But I’m Right! Why Can’t My Partner See That?

I really empathize with couples that begin a session with one person telling me something like this, “Why doesn’t my partner realize I am right?” Immediately I know that the pair sitting in front of me is in despair. I know that to live in a relationship where one person professes to have the right in the relationship while seeing the other as wrong puts both at a disadvantage. I know that both people may be feeling exhausted and sad.

Unfortunately this pattern often repeats itself; arguments unfold where one person insists he/she is right while the other feels inadequate or blamed. This person may feel right too, but it’s likely he/she has given up trying to have his/her voice heard and might be depressed. And it’s not uncommon for two people to point the finger at one another and say he, or she is to blame. In this scenario both people have to be right and everyone loses.

It may be the way we were raised, where blame had to be affixed to a problem. If this is what we experienced as a young person we might bring this aspect of how to relate to others into our own adult relationship. When there is a problem, look for the culprit. Identify the culprit, get the culprit to accept responsibility and force them to agree to learn from the mistake and not make it again.

Some people parent or train people this way. It’s designed to help people become accountable for their actions. This method has a place, but I believe it blows up the idea of mutual respect in a relationship if you use it with your mate. It allows one person to be in the position of knowing, while the other person is placed in the position of being taught. These positions are not equal and they make one or both people feel pretty unsatisfied.

The one who needs to be right can’t get relief because the other won’t listen. The one who is being told they are wrong resists because no one wants to feel blamed or bad. This kind of pattern usually leaves couples in a stalemate. Both want something from the other person. Both are not sure how to get it. It’s possible that the one who has to be right just wants to be listened too. It’s also possible that the one who is being blamed just wants to feel valued, and not persecuted.

Couples with this pattern may grow exhausted with each other. It takes a lot of energy defending your position all the time. It also takes a lot of energy tuning out your mate. Why not discover a way to use that energy in a more productive way; getting your needs met so you feel better?

When I work with couples with this type of interaction, I like to begin the process of helping each person understand his or her behaviors. The beginning part of dismantling this kind of system is understanding how we interact with our mate. Partners begin to get an idea of how they communicate with each other. This then leads to awareness of how the communication impacts the partner.

Helping couples understand the weight of their words is some of the early work. Also important is figuring out what each person needs. It’s possible that the person who has to be right just wants to feel valued and important. The more she stresses that she is right the harder she tries to feel valued and important.

The one who is being blamed could also benefit from becoming aware of how he responds. Maybe he tunes out his partner when he hears her insist she is right. Maybe he rolls his eyes or just shakes his head. What ever he is doing is important to look at during a counseling session. Understanding that his reaction has an impact on her is also important. And what are his needs that aren’t being met? Maybe he wants to feel valued too. Maybe he wants to have his voice heard as well.

In my experience that’s usually what two people in a relationship want: to be heard, to feel listened to, and acceptance. When these basic needs are fulfilled, couples flourish. They can even begin to experience a deeper connection with each other, one that may include making the other person happy, and when couples reach that level both people feel they are in a relationship worth having.

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