Relationship Advice Tips From Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
You’ve had a fight with your partner. You are sure you are in the right, and you stand your ground. There is no compromise and you are willing to wait until your partner acknowledges it. You want to be vindicated and you want your partner to acknowledge that you are right and they are wrong. How sweet the thought of that is! So you go off to your private corner with your head held high, and wait.
Meantime your partner also feels in the right. Your partner too is willing to wait until you see the error of your judgment, admit it and give them a victory. Your partner is caught in the same couples communication issue as you : a standoff!
Who goes first in restoring connection?
What are the pros and cons of going first in re-establishing connection?
Let’s use our couple Rachel and Byron as examples of a pair who are both tangled in a standoff and can’t get out, until their game is called in a therapy session and they find a way out that doesn’t involve either of them losing face.
Rachel pestered Byron to get his papers together for their joint tax returns. It was a week away from filing date and she had been ready for weeks, just waiting for him. She was exasperated at having to nudge him, and take the hit if he was late. One Friday evening she was incensed by his careless attitude towards getting the paper work together. He said he could’t find stuff, that they had plenty of time, and that she was making too much of it.
Couples Communication Issue – strength v weakness
Infuriated Rachel walked away and didn’t speak to Byron the entire weekend. She avoided eye contact, and made sure their bodies never touched even accidently. Silence was her weapon of choice. It made her feel strong and righteous. She told her parents and siblings about how ‘good’ she was, and how ‘bad’ he was. They echoed her sentiments, further sharpening the blade of silence. With head held high, she ignored his presense and made it a point to be nice and friendly with everyone else – especially toward their son Nathan and the dog. She was on her high horse, enjoying the view and anticipation of victory from her perch.
Filled with the fuel of being “right,” Rachel chose being alone, proud and right. It made her feel masterful and strong. She rejected being curious, connected and cared for in a mutually comfortable way. Intimacy became a threat.
What’s happening on Byron’s side?
He’s feeling pretty much the same as Rachel. He too feels in the right, and strong in his conviction that he isn’t to blame, so why should he be the one to reach out?
Right now Byron feels wronged and is determined to wait as long as it takes for Rachel to acknowledge her faults and mistakes, apologize and beg him to come out from his corner and play again. He’s not going to be the one to go first because it would make him feel weak and give Rachel the message that he is willing to take on the entire responsibility for their fight and what led up to it. Why should he be the bad guy and give her the message that she can get away with never owning her part in their disharmony?
Wrapped in his cloak of righteousness, Byron pulled up his shoulders , stuck out his chest and walked around with an air of entitlement, a hint of victimhood smile on his face. He ignored Rachel if he was in the same room as her, giving a strong message that he didn’t need her, and expected her to make the first move. Intimacy became a threat.
The stand-off couples communication led to a winner and losers mind set
Rachel’s burst of good feelings after being vindicated by her family sunk to a really bad low. She felt heavy with the weight of being disconnected from Byron, alone and lonely. She started to wonder whether they would ever get back to feeling comfortable and loving towards one another. All sorts of doom laden scenarios crossed her mind, heightening her anxiety and fear that they would break up. Sometimes she dealt with the fear by telling herself that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. She’d imagine all the positive things about being on her own again. For sure she wouldn’t have to worry about his lazy ways. She could get things done on time and that would be a relief. She would be the winner.
Other times Rachel imagined that he would find someone more suited to him, who wouldn’t nag him and then she’d be the loser. In these moments she felt scared of losing Byron. He had been in her life for the last 15 years, they had a son and a good life style. The good things between them enveloped her and she ached for the connection again. But those feelings of longing made her feel weak. It made her feel that she would not be able to get her way and have him perform in ways that she expected and demanded.
Meanwhile Byron experienced the headiness of strength in not needing Rachel for a while, but for him too, it didn’t last long. He started to feel twinges of loneliness and found himself opening up, about to talk to Rachel. But his need to stay strong and not give in made him clam up and stay in his corner. He fantasized about her giving in, wanting him and showing that she couldn’t live without him. Then he felt like a winner.
Soon his loneliness and wish to be close with his wife took over from his need to be strong and unmoveable. He too got anxious, thinking that maybe she would take this to the ultimate end where they would separate and he would lose out. He would have to move out and not be able to be with his son everyday. Byron imagined she would be glad to get rid of him and then he felt like a loser.
How couples therapy helped them reconnect without losing face
Rachel and Byron were tightly knotted and highly strung as they tried to avoid touching each other on the couch in my therapy office. Arms folded, big sighs and avoiding eye contact, they made it clear before saying a word that they were at an impasse, and neither wanted to “go first.”
I asked each of them in turn how it felt to be adamant about their partner accepting blame and apologizing. Both agreed that that was their position. Then I asked each of them how it felt to be disconnected and both gave a version of needing to punish the other and make them repent. As I probed further they both indicated that it felt lonely and scary. I asked each of them to spell out their worst fantasies if things didn’t get reconnected. Both echoed each others fear of breaking up and how bad that would be for each of them, (after a few bravado statements of ‘not caring’ and pretending that they would be better off without each other.)
I reflected back to them that there was perfect agreement between them on all the issues I had asked about.
They were agreed that:
- the other was to blame
- the other should apologize and be punished
- it was lonely to be disconnected
- fear of break up was real and threatening
Once they saw that they were on the exact same page, the impasee about who should “go first” appeared to be a non issue. As Byron heard Rachel’s need to feel strong, he identified with it and they made a connection on that basis. When Rachel heard that Byron was lonely without her and was as afraid as she was of the family breaking up, it resonated with her, and they re-established connection based on how alike their experiences and feelings actually were. The original fight became irrelevant. Emotional intimacy became safe and valuable once more.
What’s the couples communication issue lesson here?
- Feeling personally strong disconnects you from your partner and jepoardizes your relationship.
- Choosing strenght of openness, curiosity and looking for similarities between your needs and feelings allows you to make room for both rather than having “stand offs” where winner takes all.
- Winning and losing put you in battle mode, not a togetherness mind set. It’s takes strength to make room for your partner.
- Making room for your partner doesn’t mean you are weak. You are actually more resilient and have deeper resources.
copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2015
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Disclaimer: this video and article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond