Many couples find themselves repeating the same fight. The patterns become habitual and ineffective ways of meeting needs and resolving conflict. But what if couples hit the pause button and first determined their goal?
Before responding to your partner consider this, “What is most important to me? Is it the quality of this relationship or being right?”. Having the wrong goals only exacerbates the discord. Refocusing is the ultimate teaching of CoupleWise. Acknowledging the unmet needs that are fueling the argument helps to clarify the real problem. Then, couples can address the source of the conflict, (e.g. trust, respect, safety, etc.) rather than the symptom. Refocusing and the quality of the relationship becomes the priority.
In Dan Wile’s insightful paper below, he describes “refocusing” this way: “The inner atmosphere of a relationship is continually changing. There is the possibility at any moment to capture an intimacy that is intrinsic to that moment and to create a collaborative (empathic) cycle.” In shifting our focus and goals, we are deciding to keep our partner as an ally rather than as a stranger or enemy. In any argument, there is an opportunity to develop intimacy rather than distance and alienation. In this article, Wile describes just how this change can happen, creating the “second level in the relationship”.
Wile, as our readers might recall from his excellent essay about Repair Attempts, which we published earlier in our blog, is the therapist whom the eminent Dr. John Gottman calls, “a genius and the greatest living marital therapist [in America].”. Wile’s website is http://danwile.com/ and he can be reached at email@example.com. –Intro by Gary Krane, PhD & Heather Edwards, LMHC
OPENING UP A SECOND LEVEL IN THE RELATIONSHIP
(Originally published in the Los Angeles Psychologist, a publication of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, Nov/Dec 2000) by Daniel B. Wile
A relationship is like the weather ‑‑ continuously changing. At any moment, you can confide your concerns and turn your partner into an ally, avoid them and turn your partner into a stranger, or attack and turn your partner into an enemy. You’d be turning your partner into an ally were you to say, “I’ve been feeling lonely all day at work.” You’d be turning your partner into an enemy were you to say, instead, “You’d never think to call me, would you?” You’d be turning your partner into a stranger were you to say nothing about what you’re feeling and ask, simply, “Anything good on TV tonight?”
What you want to do, of course, is to turn your partner into an ally ‑‑ and just keep him or her there. But let’s say your partner (you’re a wife talking to her husband) is taking too long to get to the point, you’re finding yourself getting impatient, and you can’t think of how to tell him that without hurting his feelings, starting a fight, and ruining the evening? So, you keep your mouth shut, but that turns him into a stranger, and a still-nattering one at that. Eventually you blurt out, “Can you get to the point some time in this century!” which turns him into an enemy, hurts his feelings, starts a fight, and ruins the evening. There was relief in getting that out, but you were surprised yourself at how harsh it sounded.
The quality of life in the relationship depends on how you deal with this enemy (or stranger) you repeatedly turn your partner into. What you’d like to be able to do is immediately turn him into an ally, by telling him, “I can’t believe I said that,” or “I think I just crossed the line, or “I’m shocked myself at how harshly that came out,” or “There was a point I was trying to make but I don’t think that was the way to do it.” You’d be taking him into your confidence about your distress over what you just said. You’d be turning him into an ally in the manner by which you’d be acknowledging having just turned him into an enemy. You’d be opening up a second level in the relationship.
This is the capability I want to talk about here ‑‑ the capability of solving the problem you just created by re-assembling the relationship on the next higher level. You’d be creating a second tier in the relationship, an observation post, a process relationship, a joint platform, an observing couple ego.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the presence of mind to come up with such a perfect conciliatory gesture. To start with, you don’t feel conciliatory. You’re angry at him. Later, in the shower, you’re still angry. You tell yourself: “What a bore he is. And if he knew me at all ‑‑ and he should after all these years ‑‑ he’d know I’m the last person on earth to care about all those details.” But, having gotten that out of your system, you’re calm enough to think, “He really did look stricken when I snapped at him like that. Poor guy!” And who says I’m so easy to live with? In fact, I’ve got the opposite problem. I worry so about boring people that I don’t give them enough information to know what I’m feeling. Who’s to say which is worse?”
You stepped into the shower commiserating with yourself; you stepped out of it commiserating with him ‑‑ which puts you in position to turn him into an ally. You go to him and say, “I feel bad about snapping at you earlier.” You hope he’ll say, “Well, I appreciate your saying that.” But no such luck. “Yes,” he says, “why do you always have to do that!?!” This immediately makes you sorry you said anything at all. You’re obviously his enemy now, which makes you want to return the favor. You open your mouth to tell him, “Here, I’m trying to be an adult and what do you do: you use it against me. You’re acting like a baby. The hell with you!”
But before you can get that you, you tell yourself, “Of course, my original comment was pretty harsh ‑‑ I was acting like a baby ‑‑ so I can’t expect him to come around right away. He needs a little time to get over it. His rejecting of your peace offering turned you into his enemy; your inner re-analysis of it turned you back into his ally. You tell him, “Yes, well, I’m not proud of it.” Your soft response when he was expecting another retaliatory sally ‑‑ he was actually wincing in anticipation of it ‑‑ completely turns him around. He says, “Well, I’m not proud of taking so long to get to the point. I know I do that a lot ‑‑ sort of get lost in minor details ‑‑ in fact I’ve been doing that with people all day and no one’s been listening to me.” He’s looking at things from your point of view in response to your having just done so from his. He’s sympathizing with you for having a partner who doesn’t get to the point, in response to your having just sympathized with him for having one who snaps at you when you don’t. The two of you are standing back looking at your earlier fight, but now each of you is viewing the other person’s position compassionately. This is the definition of shifting to the second level.
What everyone wants to do, of course, is to make such a compassionate second level an increasingly more prominent part of the relationship. Every couple has its own set of unsolvable problems that they’ll be grappling with throughout the relationship. Establishing such a second level is an ideal grappling tool.
The difficult-to-achieve goal, although you hope over the years to approximate it, is to turn the unsolvable problems (e.g., your getting impatient when your partner takes too long to get to the point), as well as any moment-to-moment problems, into usable clues for navigating the relationship. Imagine being able to tell your partner, “I hate to tell you this, but I’m starting to tap my foot,” and ‑‑ here’s the important part ‑‑ knowing that he will welcome your saying it. You’ll know he’ll see you as making a contribution to the relationship, as rescuing the two of you from the morale-sapping exchange in which you are pretending to be interested and he is pretending not to notice that you aren’t ‑‑ which, when one of you stops pretending, will lead to a fight.
Imagine further his telling you ‑‑ which he very well might do, since he’d be taking what you said as information rather than as criticism ‑‑ “Yes, I didn’t realize it until what you just said, but something’s troubling me that I’ve been circling around because I don’t know what it is.” You, then, are able to say, “Well, maybe it’s what you just said: that no one’s been listening to you all day?” You’d have avoided becoming part of the problem ‑‑ another person who wasn’t listening to him ‑‑ and, instead, had become part of the solution: someone who finally was. You would have turned this ongoing issue in the relationship ‑‑ this unsolvable problem ‑‑ into an opportunity for intimacy.
Here is the theory of relationships implied in this example:
1. You repeatedly find yourself in the unmanageable situation of having feelings about your partner that, if you express them, lead to one set of problems, and, if you don’t express them, lead to another.
2. A good way to deal with this unmanageable situation is to open up a second level in the relationship. But you can do so only when you find yourself looking at things from your partner’s point of view. Everything depends on how you feel when you get out of the shower.
3. Even then, you can’t expect your partner to come around right away. Much depends on how well the conversation you have with yourself guides you through the shoals of the one you have with your partner.
4. The ultimate goal is to turn the problems of the relationship into opportunities for intimacy.