by Paul Greene, PhD, Clinical Psychologist in New Rochelle, NY
Debating, Explaining, or Defending: It’s All the Same Thing.
Why do couples fight? The most frequent reason is that their deepest sense of connection is damaged by the words they choose. Hearts may be in the right place, but saying the wrong thing can cause lasting damage. Fights can happen over issues large and small. Each person triggers the other until both spiral to a place neither wants to be. Let’s explore this to uncover the right things to say.
Why Fights Get Ugly
Language analysis shows that, in arguments, couples aren’t actually addressing each other’s concerns but are misperceiving each other’s reactions and responding to the wrong concerns, leading to mangled communication. Like people who speak different foreign languages, words get repeated, and voices get louder, as though automatic repetition and volume overcome the absence of understanding. Like unintended insults that are not quickly addressed become lasting sensitivities, old injuries to one’s sense of self can be reignited. These sensitivities and old injuries can be remnants of one’s personal history and trauma. Louder and louder voices reflecting hurt feelings cycle to damage how they feel about each other. This can further alter their perceptions of each other and cause disastrous consequences. Even otherwise loving couples can, as a function of poor communication, create distance, disconnection, and even a level hatefulness that can lead to divorce.
Have you found yourself in positions similar to any of these?
- I thought we were having a civil discussion. Why did you get so angry? (You are being unreasonable, too emotional, and not listening.)
- You questioned me, attacking my motives, but I was explaining why I did what I did. Understanding the context demonstrates that
- I wasn’t doing something wrong. Shouldn’t it? Why all the anger? (Underlying message: You are being unreasonable, too emotional, and not listening.)
- If we weigh the facts in a healthy debate, we can determine what and who was right or wrong. That isn’t a personal insult. We both want the right solution, don’t we? Why do you get so angry? (Underlying message: You are being unreasonable, too emotional, and not listening.)
Does this sound like an argument you’ve had, and you still don’t understand why it turned into a fight? Has this happened repeatedly? Are you frustrated knowing it will happen again? Will both of you do the same thing yet somehow expect a different outcome, even though you know it won’t?
Read on to learn why your conversations go south and how to turn them around.
Defense Versus Understanding
You may disagree, but the reactions cited above are defensive and making things worse. By defensive, I mean defending your actions and ideas — I’m not referencing Freud here, but the sense that you can’t deal with whatever emotions are emanating from your unconscious. Simply put, you are refuting what was said, not communicating that you heard and understood what was being said to you. You are defending your actions, protesting that you haven’t done anything wrong and that your actions were justified. You are telegraphing overt or covert criticism: that your partner is being unreasonable and overly emotional, and thus not listening.
You are probably right. They aren’t listening. They are very emotional. They are being unreasonable. So are you. Who will be the one to be the grown-up? Or will you argue about that too?
You may protest to me that you are answering what was being said to you. No, you aren’t. You don’t even show that you know what was said to you. Perhaps you heard most of the words, but you missed the meaning.
How Are You Processing What You’re Hearing?
Meaning is everything. If you were to ask yourself, “What was the meaning of what was said?” and then ask the person with whom you are talking if your understanding was correct, the conversation could turn in a more promising direction. If you were to ask yourself, “What was the feeling behind those words?” — and ask again if your perception of the meaning and feelings were correct, you would be almost halfway to a much better conversation. Hold on to your reactions and feelings about what was said to you. We will get to that in due course. First, if we are going to have a healthy, productive conversation and not fight, we must prioritize validating accurate understanding by getting confirmation that our understanding is correct. If you can do everything up to this point, the conversation has the potential to become very useful.
But if you simply follow your feelings and react, chances are that your response will be defensive reactions that refute or explain actions but don’t validate your partner’s experience. In its mildest form, this is impulsively trying to justify or put into context the reasons for actions that are being questioned or attacked. In its worst form, it is gaslighting, convincing someone to disbelieve their own eyes. Consciously gaslighting is sick and potentially dangerous. To be explicitly understood is affirming and positive.
Validating another’s experience is not the same as agreeing with them. It is only affirming that you get their position. After confirming that you have achieved correct understanding, you may or may not agree. Sometimes, when we hear out loud what we just said, we recognize that we have not expressed ourselves appropriately, and our position softens. Listening to how we have been heard can facilitate self-awareness and insight. Good outcomes can grow from mutual understanding. From mutual misunderstanding, what is the most likely outcome? Not what you want.
Healthy and Unhealthy Responses to Partner Conflict
There are healthy and unhealthy responses to the pattern I am calling defensive. Stuffing your feelings and letting them turn into silent but hardened resentments — that’s unhealthy. So is becoming aggressive with mean words or intimidation, trying to talk louder until you scream over the other’s voice. Unresolved resentments and aggressiveness are likely to build up to become corrosive. Worse, either party may give up on the relationship, and unknowingly or knowingly destroy it.
Developing new, healthy practices and patterns is the hard part. It is very hard to change well-ingrained behaviors. Emotionally delivered criticism can feel like an assault on one’s deepest sense of self. It is especially hard to prevent lashing out, which is an almost-innate, automatic reaction to what feels like an attack. The inherent promise is that the effort of change returns much greater benefits than the cost of change.
What Does Healthy Look Like?
To make change easier, here is how we can define healthy so you can understand the goal and recognize it as you get there:
- Healthy is watching your emotions so that you can fully understand and express accurately what you think you are hearing.
- Healthy is being able to listen to what is being expressed about the other person, appreciating that this isn’t about you at that moment. They are angry or upset or hurt. They raise their voice to be heard. By choosing to listen instead of respond immediately, you are being healthier.
- Healthy is finding a way to show your partner that they are being heard.
- Healthy is not automatically assuming your understanding is correct but using thoughtful words to validate your own understanding instead.
These new healthy patterns and reactions communicate that you care about understanding the other person. Even if your understanding is wrong, you are showing that you care about them by seeking to understand their perspective.
Prioritize Accurate Understanding and Expressing It with Sensitivity
Too often people assume that they correctly understand when they do not. That leads to reflexively explaining themselves and why the other is mistaken. No matter how you characterize that reaction, it is a criticism. Think about it: In the heat of the moment, do you really expect that showing them how they were wrong will be received well? How often does criticism become constructive when raw, hurt, angry emotions are driving the conversation and relationship?
Even if you do understand, do they know you do? Do they feel understood? How do you know? Remember, this isn’t about you at this time. It will be later. It has to be about you, too, at some point, or your relationship is in really big trouble. One-sided relationships are miserable for one or, more likely, for both. We must take this one step at a time.
What to Do in the Moment
First, listen and then confirm that your understanding is what was intended in meaning and feeling by paraphrasing what you think you heard. Can you control yourself from overreacting to your emotions in this moment? If you can’t, you have a problem that has to be addressed, perhaps separately. Let’s assume for now that you have sufficient self-control and can listen accurately and express yourself coherently enough to be understood. If the one to whom you are speaking can’t understand your coherent request to verify what you thought was said, then they have a problem that may also have to be addressed separately.
Working one-on-one with a therapist is one of the best ways to cultivate the skills and healthy internal life you’ll need in life and in relationships. Start looking for a therapist in your area, use filters to narrow your results, and check out some therapist profiles to find the right-fit therapist for you.
If, in trying these techniques, we find that listening and communicating sensitively are impossible with a couple’s current skills, we have to question their capacity to have a successful relationship without addressing these issues. Every mutually satisfying relationship needs to have both parties at least able to listen and speak, even if they can’t talk to each other about controversial issues. Those skills can be improved, but they must first exist. If they don’t exist, if the ability to listen, understand and express themselves isn’t present, individual therapy may be the answer. Those skills create relationships in which problems can be resolved, mutually acceptable solutions can be found, and fighting doesn’t become destructive.
Listening thoughtfully, comprehending compassionately, and setting aside your feelings to accurately confirm the other’s experiences are skills that you can improve, refine, and harness to strengthen your ability to fulfill that most fundamental human need, connection.
If your relationship would benefit from couple counseling, start with this page about finding a marriage or couples counselors, who, regardless of whether they are marriage and family therapists, social workers, mental health counselors, or psychologists, are experts in supporting couples and helping them grow.
© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Paul Greene, PhD, Clinical Psychologist in New Rochelle, NY