“Irene and Bill reversed the usual roles. In my clinical practice over the years about one out of every four couples presents with the woman as the flagrant offender and the man in the subservient position. When I claim that women in our culture tend to be raised with more relational skill than men, I do not mean to gloss over the nuance and and variation between different couples, nor to whitewash women’s immaturity. There is no shortage of abrasive women in our society. In marriages like Billy and Irene’s the dynamic of contempt remains essentially unchanged, while the [genders] of the actors reverse. The women in such pairs ride the one-up position, often railing against the same “feminine” qualities in their mates that are despised by culture at large. Their husbands are “too weak,” “too nice,” “can’t stand up for themselves”. And the men in these couples tend to manage and enable, just like traditional wives.” — Terry Real, How Can I Get Through to You? pg. 192
Hello. My name is Karen. I’m a Twenty-five Percenter.
Normally being part of a smaller, elite group is associated with privilege and luxury, but in this case, it’s more like a tar pit of pain and shame. Nothing new, but yesterday I was reading Terry Real’s writing on “Love’s Assassin’s” (a chapter in the book cited above) and it reminded me, and reclarified, a number of truly damaging behavioural patterns that have cost me relationships on more than one occasion, including my marriage. I spent a LOT of time and therapy in the aftermath of that particular failure trying to suss out what I had been failing to grasp before the final death knells. We were very good at communicating, but in truth we’re only as good at communicating as we are at KNOWING what we’re trying to communicate. And when we can’t peel the onion down far enough to get to raw core things, we’re not exactly going to be great at communicating what needs to be known about those deeply-intimate parts of ourselves. If we can’t see that deeply, we can’t really expect others to see for us… and yet, that very expectation lies at the heart of a relational craving for true intimacy. The closer we come to being truly seen, however, the more our anti-vulnerability defense system, honed over a lifetime’s worth of real and perceived hurts, kicks up. The more intimate we grow in our relationships, and the closer our partners get to seeing our core vulnerabilities, the more terrified we become of what those Others might actually see. The deepest things we hide and fear… how can they bear to witness those deep secrets and ever still possibly LOVE us??
“Men and women who sustain real love do not find themselves blissfully devoid of their old issues. They find themselves, just like the unfortunate ones, thrown back into wounds they’d rather not face. But, unlike the unfortunate ones, they face them. Same drama, different outcome. I call this last possibility repair. If the promise phase [of relationship] offered love without knowledge, and disillusionment brings us knowledge without love, repair offers the possibility of knowing love, mature love, the conjunction of truth and affection. Seeing, and feeling acutely, our partner’s flaws and limitations, we nonetheless choose not to withdraw from them We succeed in navigating the vagaries of harmony, disharmony, and restoration–the essential rhythm of relationship” –pg. 180
“…if disillusionment is a kind of relational purgatory leading back to resolution, even transformation, most of the couples that contact me have not found a way to push all the way through. Devoid of the skills necessary to hold on, incapable of disconnection in the face of disconnection, instead of the healing phase of repair, these couples deteriorate. If relational recovery is medicine, such stalled intimacy, the inability to push through disillusionment to repair, is the disease. […] Couples who don’t make it through disillusionment tend to get snared by one or all three of phases of intimacy’s erosion — control, retaliation, and resignation.” — pg 186
“Revenge [retaliation] is really a perverse form of communication, a twisted attempt at repair. We want to ‘make the person feel’ what they made us feel. Why? Though we rarely admit it, it is so they might understand. So that they might ‘get’ what they’ve done and feel remorse. Unaccountability evokes punitive impulses in most of us. We want to bring the shameless one to [their] knees, see [them] humbled. But we also want [them] to open [their] heart, so that there might be some resolution. The punch line of most revenge fantasies comes when the hurtful one falls to the floor sobbing and begs for forgiveness.
Don’t hold your breath.” — pg. 189
Real describes how most couples in healthier states of operation will move between harmony, disharmony, and repair in both short- and long-term cycles, from the course of a dinner together up through the entire life cycle of the relationship. Likewise, couples stuck in disillusionment will often shift between control, retaliation, and resignation, though long-term resignation, viewed as a disengaged, apathetic stance, is often a veritable death-knell for a relationship; certain a bell tolling for the passing of any opportunity for real intimacy.
Retaliation in particular is an insidious thing. The twistedness that Real describes in his writing comes (as I have experienced it, and witnessed it repeatedly in my own clients) from a craving for connected communion, that conjoined place in which the Other COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDS what I have experienced: all my pain and rage and grief and whatever else comes along in the mix. I want the Other to KNOW without any doubt on the same bone-deep level as I do, the impact of what has transpired. And since we can’t re-enact for the Other an entire lifetime of development that lead to my experiencing and interpreting the situation the way that I did, the shorthand version is to retaliate in some way, to deliver unto the Other some kind of hurt that will force the Other feel what a reasonable approximation of what I felt. Children practice retaliation almost unconsciously; adults often have social and behavioural overrides but in times of deep strain will revert to that kind of instinctive lashing out. Over time, and often relating to the “slow death by a thousand cuts” effect, it becomes the default pattern. It’s almost like a knee-jerk reaction, you-hurt-me-I-kick-out-at-you, but there is a point, however swift and unconscious, at which we have to make a choice about how we will respond to a trigger. The deeper the emotional impact, the more likely we will be overwhelmed and less conscious of responses, so the more likely we’ll attack first and think later… if at all.
Yes, it’s an entirely counter-productive reaction, if what we really crave as humans is connection and contact. That’s why Real’s description as being the “twisted” form of connection makes sense. We really do want someone to understand what we feel, but we go about it in all the wrong ways, and create more pain and division than the closeness we think we want, but fear.
John Gottman writes, “The goal of repair is to understand what went wrong, and how to make your next conversation more constructive.” The difficulty with managing repair in a disillusionment state is that one or both partners are often no longer willing to hear connection attempts. It becomes less about risking intimacy, and more about making sure the offender understands the offended’s perspective in excruciating detail. It becomes the effort of forcing one partner to acknowledge and take responsibility for whatever sin has been presumed; in essence, for the partner entrenched in the hurt and wrongdoing, who is lashing out, the relationship has BECOME the problem. At this point, it’s very difficult to escape the cycle.
The role of the therapist in this kind of presenting cycle, once we can identify it, starts with a little more refereeing than many of us like, but all of us who work with couples especially sometimes find necessary. I have a “Ground Zero” rule in my office: I will not tolerate open contempt between partners. Argue, sure; but when things proceed to active disrespect and contempt in front of me, I draw a line and stop the fight. On a bad day, sometimes someone walks out. On a good day, though, we get to have discussions like this:
me: When this relationship started, did either of you get into it to be unhappy?
Client 1: No, of course not.
me: Did either of you get into it believing the other person’s intention was to do you harm?
Client 2: No. Never.
me: Do either of you believe right now that the other person INTENDS to do you harm?
Client 2: No, but he just does the—
me: No, let’s just sit with this ONE thought for a moment, just this. Think about it. “My partner does not INTEND me harm.” Repeat that for me, please, both of you.
Clients: [reluctant mumbling]
me: How does it feel to hear those words in your own mouths and ears?
Client 2: Hard to believe.
me: What does it suggest is possible, then, if we start from the idea that the INTENT is NOT harm?
Clients: [crickets chirp… but at least the argument does not resume]
Moving a conflicted client or couple from retaliative confrontational mode to uncomfortable silence is the easy part. It’s a relational equivalent of the Christmas Armistice of 1914, a temporary cessation of hostility along defined battle lines. But we have to start somewhere, and sometimes even the simple act of reminding clients that there are moments of stillness like this available to them, is a gift in itself. From there, the repair attempt in the smaller sense is the act of turning to each other and saying, “I don’t know how the hell to fix this, but I know I want to try, because I still want to be connected with you.” In the bigger-picture sense, the work is less about unravelling the specifics of why the fights start; if we get stuck at the symptomatic level, we’ll never get to address the vulnerable cores we’re protecting through hostility and aggressive defenses. I don’t know who Gloria stole it from all those years ago, but I distinctly remember when she told me, as her client, “The things we’re fighting about are almost never the things we’re fighting about”, and this is especially true of recurring argument topics. So sometimes the therapist’s job is to throw the symptom-level diversions out the window and push clients out of their comfort zones, into those spaces where we catch glimpses of those vulnerable cores: What *IS* the emotional cost faced when confronting the idea that one’s partner doesn’t value what we value? Where do we get stuck in the loop of, “not valuing my VALUES = not valuing ME”?
Gottman also raises a good point, when it comes to shaping clients’ expectations about how repair attempts work:
“What our marriage has taught us is that the simple act of making repair attempts isn’t enough. Knowing your spouse by understanding their needs, especially in the context of conflict, will help you devise ways to more effectively de-escalate an argument.
Know how your partner receives love
Maybe your spouse responds well to gifts, and so during a cool-down period after a fight you go buy her a flower or her favorite coffee drink from Starbucks. Maybe your spouse craves affirmation, and so during a fight you seek to reassure him how much you love him, even when you’re angry about something he did.
Knowing how your partner receives love and what they need to repair from conflict is like having a secret weapon tailored just to them and their happiness.
Of course, simply making a good repair attempt doesn’t ensure success. It’s also incumbent upon the other spouse to recognize and accept the attempt. And if only one person in a marriage is habitually making the effort to resolve the conflict, the imbalance may take its toll over time. Both spouses need to do the work toward dissolving negativity and, when possible, resolving conflict.”
To step outside the retaliation efforts, where being angry and aggressive at least makes us feel strong (even at the cost of creating a nonconsensual one-up dynamic), especially when we recognize we may have to do it repeatedly before our partner trusts us enough to receive the repair attempt in good faith, is damnably difficult. If your native attachment style is one of insecurity (as mine was), it’s bordering on inconceivable.
But not unfixable. That’s the best news.
It does mean letting go of entrenched stances of the Offender and Offended, or the Blamer and Placator (to use Virginia Satir’s stances; in the dance of intimacy, though, not everyone’s a placator. By the time a relationship hits the disillusionment stage and is on a collision course for resignation, odds are good at least one party has simply “yielded the field” in disconnected apathy.) It means coming back to the table in good faith in an attempt to hear the desire for connection as being stronger than the desire to retaliate. It means being open to the risk ON BOTH SIDES of being hurt, but developing some new, or at least different, patterns of resiliency. We need to work on changing the default scripts from “You don’t value/love/respect/listen to me” on the part of the Offended, to “This is not the worst thing in the world, and it doesn’t mean what I want to tell myself it means”. And it means teaching the partner on the receiving end of the retaliation, different ways of responding that put some safer boundaries around managing the emotional energy (their own, and deflecting the retaliator’s anger more effectively back to where it belongs) in the confrontation.
How to allow for intimacy and connection while also allowing space for anger, hurt, and frustration in the moment, is incredibly challenging work. It’s work many of us were at best poorly-equipped to deal with as families, schools, workplaces, and intimate partners all, directly or indirectly, led us to a culture-wide message that “anger is inappropriate”. So we lash out in other ways, nasty manipulations and emotional attacks meant to give voice to something we don’t know how to express more effectively, or to tolerate effectively when we face it. But it is a CHOICE, in the moment, whether we respond with retaliation or with repair. Both will cost us, I can’t lie about that fact. But only one choice remains congruent with any belief that we do not get into intimate relationships with the INTENT to cause each other harm.
And the work of restoring balance, of moving back towards intimacy, starts with making a choice in support of that congruence. If partners cannot make that choice, then I will be the first person to observe that such a relationship will never thrive, and perhaps not survive.
It’s a choice. It’s that deceptively simple. And that painfully difficult. And, from my own experience, that devastatingly costly when we make the wrong choice. If anyone wonders where my near-infinite compassion for working with couples struggling in this same stuck place comes from, that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.