“It seems kind of extreme that we’re seeing a couples therapist,” Andrew* starts the session by saying.
“It’s not like we’re miserable or anything. It’s just that we’ve been getting angry at each other a lot lately–over nothing,” says his husband, Rich.
“For instance, he’s always criticizing my driving. He thinks I drive too fast.”
“It’s not just me,” Rich responds. “You were pulled over last week. The policeman thought you were going too fast, too.”
“That was a speed trap,” Andrew replies. “Usually I’m a very careful driver. Anyhow” he turns to me, “This is what it’s been like for some time, now. Everything I do and say gets nitpicked and refuted.”
“That’s not the whole picture,” Rich says. “You make it sound like I’m always picking on you over nothing. Which I’m not.”
Andrew opens his mouth to respond, but before he can get a word out, Rich continues:
“It seems to me that nothing I do seems to suit you, either.”
“That’s not true. You know I think you’re a terrific partner.”
“Well, it seems like you’re always whining about how messy I am.”
“I wouldn’t say that asking you not to leave your papers spread all over the study is the same as always whining that you’re messy.”
“My papers are not spread all over the study…”
Does your relationship ever resemble Andrew’s and Rich’s relationship? Where you both focus on how badly the other person is behaving, and you both do your best to fend off any criticism of how you are conducting yourself?
“You two are really adversaries,” I say.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you refuse to take in anything your partner says, and you’re each determined to be the one who’s right.”
Andrew and Rich both look unsettled.
“Well…” Rich says after a long pause, “Andrew does seem to try hard to disagree with me about everything.”
“And you do your best to prove me wrong as often as you can,” responds Andrew.
They are dead serious, unaware that they are continuing the dynamic. Most of us do the same when we have such exchanges in our own lives.
Some time later, we’ve made progress. With chagrin and a bit of humor, both Andrew and Rich acknowledge their part in the ongoing criticism and stonewalling. This is essential to their changing the way they treat each other, because you can’t change what you don’t see.
“So what do we do?” Andrew asks.
If you want to have a better relationship, keep the following in mind:
- When one of you must always win, and one of you must always lose, there never really is a winner.
- When neither of you will take in what the other has to say, it’s hard to be close.
- Because it’s extremely unlikely that you will let yourself be vulnerable when you and your partner are skirmishing, real intimacy is off the table as long as you two keep up the back-and-forth sniping.
- No matter how or why this dynamic starts, it usually escalates, so it is critical that you end it if you want to live differently.
Focusing on the other person’s faults, or waiting for him or her to change first, is certain to get you nowhere. Changing how you conduct yourself may not be easy, but the only strategy that gives you a chance to make things better.
If you, or you and your partner, are interested in a better relationship, feel free to contact me. I’ll be glad to help you figure how you can do your best.
*All names and identifying details altered in this article.