One of the most common traps I see couples fall into when they are upset with each other is the… “A, but B, but A, but B”… conversations. These conversations are characterized by their repetitive nature in which each person continues to make the same point over and over again. What’s happening here is that both people have fallen into a mindset in which they feel the overwhelming need for the other to hear and truly understand them. Each gets fixated on getting through to their partner and frustrated that their partner doesn’t “get it.” Their one-sided need is so strong, they are no longer able to hear, focus on, or understand what their partner is saying. In this state, they are almost never able to appreciate that their partner is stuck in the same underlying need and fixation. As this dynamic escalates, lovers become enemies, and the fighting continues until one or both parties leaves the table.
If you and your partner fall into this pattern, first of all, know that you are not alone. It is one of the most subtle, seductive and common styles of fighting. The tragedy of this type of fight is that when you move beneath the content of the fight, both people are actually wanting to know the same thing: “Do you (or don’t you) care about how I feel?” Secondly, it is important to understand that because these fights are so common, the goal as a couple needs to be…work together to learn to recognize the pattern when it is happening. Then they must learn how to work together to move through it.
Step One: Awareness of the Pattern.
This step can often require some outside help. However, some of the basic aspects to look for are these: Does your body feel tense? Are you feeling frustrated that things are “going nowhere?” Do you feel like your partner “just isn’t getting it?”
Self-awareness questions: If the above is true, are you being repetitive? Are you, or your partner, being demanding, critical or lecturing? Are you, or your partner, responding with defensiveness? Are you explaining why the other should (not) be so critical?
If so, really focus your attention on what it feels like to be in this fight. Remember, you have to become aware of what you do and be able to recognize it when it is happening, before you can change it.
Step Two: Naming the Pattern.
This is the simplest step on paper, but actually hard to do when you’re in the fight. The skill itself is simply and literally naming what is happening at the moment. “Hold on a second. I feel like we’re in that A, but B pattern again. Lets slow down and figure out what we each need.” It’s really that simple. However, “choosing” to do it in the heat of the moment (and getting your partner to agree) takes more practice than you’d think.
Step Three: Moving Towards Mutual Understanding.
This final piece involves an “appreciation for” and a commitment to taking care of each other. You have to accept that in order for your needs to be met, your partner’s needs need to be met. Your partner will more likely listen if he/she feels respected rather than attacked. And, your partner will be more likely to be respectful if he/she feels respected, listened to and appreciated.
Once you do this, i.e., name the pattern and mutually agree to the need to be understood, you both can then mutually commit to taking turns listening with care and focused understanding. Some questions you can use to help refocus on this “caring” are:
• Offering a Desire to Understanding: What was that like for you?
• Inviting your Partner to Share More: What was the worst part about what it was like for you when…?
• Discovering Effect: What did it mean to you when I…?
• Going for Deep Meaning: What does that mean to you when you say…?
• Offering Emotional Understanding: How did that hurt you?
Keep in mind: words alone are not sufficient. You actually need to remember that the person in front of you is someone you love. You should let the questions come more from the heart, not just the head. Also keep in mind: if you or your partner is not used to talking this way, it may take a while before this feels natural to you. Stay patient. It becomes natural with time.
Craig Toonder is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Founder of Oakland Couples Counseling. Craig teaches communication classes, as well as, providing couples therapy. www.oaklandcouplescounseling.com