I am reminded of omnipresent psychotherapist Jordan Petersen’s reflections on couples and how they often get into trouble by essentially going straight , as he puts it, to the: ‘top of the hierarchy’ with one person calling the other an idiot (or a variation which produces the same result) naturally there is little you can do when you are essentially being told you’re stupid etc. and it is at the top of the hierarchy, that you shout, storm out, stop talking or maybe even worse… but essentially there is nothing productive to go on if you respond- as many of us do- by essentially retreating into your own childlike state and calling them an idiot back…
Dr Petersen tells us the antidote is to explain what you really or actually want e.g. the other person is ignoring you and offering preferential treatment to a TV programme they are watching and you come home and get no response from them… so you call them an idiot because a) you very quickly start to behave like a child when you are hurt, shunned, feel rejected or ignored and it is easier to react with an emotion than to take yourself to task and explain: ‘I feel like you are ignoring me and I have been at work all day, I want you to stand up come to me ask me about my day and give me a hug (even when you don’t really feel like it). That’s not the end of the bargaining of course as the person receiving the hug will need to offer something back in return, there may be something of equal value, for example, to be bartered for by the other member of the couple.
The essential learning from the above example is that we need to focus on the problem not the other person. Arguments are often so unproductive because we focus on being right and ‘winning’ rather than the problem itself. If I shout at my daughter and tell her that if she doesn’t like my house she should: ‘bugger off’ because it is too painful for me to say: ‘you are talking about moving and I love you, feel you might be rejecting me and will miss you when you go’.
How difficult is it to tell the other person in your life what you want? Spontaneous and occasionally kinky sex? Might be difficult and need negotiating and even bartering for, maybe it is embarrassing to go into the detail but if you don’t you must suffer the loss if you are not able to find a way to say it out loud. This bartering though, can be more mundane it is bartering to divide the labour in your relationship and agreeing to who does what, but how reasonable is it to expect this to just happen without detailed discussion and negotiation?
There are central tenets to making relationships work better and these are revealed to us by the world leading experts on Couple’s therapy John and Judy Gottman who have conducted decades of therapy and research identifying scientific evidence for what works for couples who are having difficulties (and sometimes extreme difficulties) but want to know if there is something they can do to fix their relationship.
Drs Gottman present essential principles for couples wanting to fix their relationships and here are two:
1- Couples are often stuck with proving who is right… and this can be manifested in issues such as who remembers best what happened (i.e., ‘my memory is better than yours- so there’) the assumption here is that there is only one truth and that someone has the right to feel more hurt than the other… stop this and focus on the problem: ‘I feel lonely/lacking in affection’ not: ‘you are cold and unaffectionate…’ Use ‘I’ messages- which focus on how you feel, on a solution and not proving right/wrong, NB when you finally prove them wrong what then? (They feel shit and still hate you).
2- People: criticise, use contempt, defend, and stonewall. Criticism happens both with and without intent… i.e. I may perceive your offer as a criticism, and you may or may not intend it as such… let’s say you say to me one day with the intention of being helpful: ‘I wonder of there is a way we can tidy the shed to make it easier to find stuff’ If I am on my game and responding as an adult I might say: ‘that’s a good idea let’s spend an hour on it this afternoon’ and the talk is between two adults, however if I respond: ‘what’s wrong with the way I tidy the shed?’ it is coming from a much more childlike place, your inner child we might say, and I have, of course interpreted what you said as a criticism. In short, the way forward would be two people staying very much on a level with their communication. Let’s say I don’t want to do it right now because I had something more fun in mind and I say: ‘let’s get out for a walk and a coffee then come back and start on the shed’ no room for hurt, shame, criticism, just straight on to the problem solution. My partner would of course have to recognise this and join in, but if she is savvy, she’ll work out she’s going to get what she wants out of this transaction. Contempt is poison to communication, it’s too easy to treat people with contempt but also anathema to a good relationship- you live with that person, know their foibles, strengths, and weaknesses and this makes it far, far too easy to be contemptuous… work out a way to not to respond without contempt, remember when you accuse that person of being an idiot and making bad decisions- you were one of them…
· Don’t go to the top of the hierarchy: ‘you’re an idiot’ but say what you want, work it out carefully, but say specifically what you want…
· Identify how often defence against criticism (that you learnt as a young child) is your common response. Practice, at least some of the time, responding with an adult response
· Are you focussed on proving you’re right? What about the actual underlying problem stated in the positive: ‘I want you to listen to/understand me even if you don’t agree with me…’ focus on this instead of ‘winning’
· Don’t say: ‘That’s just typical of you’ (i.e., I know you are an idiot now, you were an idiot yesterday and will probably be an idiot when you wake up tomorrow) it is a phrase that has hardly ever helped anyone change, ever in the history of humankind… stop contempt and tell them what you want and be keen on exploring what they want.
Conversations, D. (1999). How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. New York: Viking Penguin.
Gottman, J. S., & Gottman, J. M. (2015). 10 principles for doing effective couples therapy (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
Methven, S., Odell, M., & Weeks, G. R. (2013). If only I had known...: Avoiding common mistakes in couples therapy. WW Norton & Company.
Peterson, J: (2020) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xwG3QLyslc