All couples fight. A therapist I hold in high regards once said that “if a couple comes in and tells me they never fight, I know that they are in serious trouble.” It is important for couples to have arguments, as it is a vital part of communication. A couple will not get along 100% of the time and it is important that they learn to adjust to each other’s expectations, cultural norms, and even disappointments. We can rationally understand this. We fight with our friends. We can disagree with our parents. But when it is your significant other it can feel overwhelming.
One issue that often comes up in couples when they argue, is that one partner will feel like the other is avoiding the arguments. This often can make them more upset and feel like they are trying to avoid them. There is a fear and panic that goes on within them that is almost primal and it is.
There were multiple studies done by Harry Harlow in the 1950’s and 60’s. Harlow looked at baby monkeys and their relationships with their mothers. If the baby had a strong, secure relationship with its mother then it could explore the park, make friends and go a good distance from its mother. But if it had a weaker, more insecure relationship with the mother then it would stay close. It was too afraid of leaving its mother. It was as if the baby monkey feared that if it wandered away, their mother might not be there when they came back. The baby monkey’s focus was making sure its relationship with the mother was intact rather than being able to play, explore, or even take care of itself.
Many people identify with that anxious baby monkey. When the relationship is in trouble, it often feels like the whole world is falling apart. We seek out our partner to make sure that they are still there. But when the partner shuts them out, it only make them more anxious.
What is going on for the partner that is avoiding the argument? Gottmann, a highly regarded researcher and therapist on marriage and couples counseling, often calls this strategy stonewalling. Stonewalling would be when a partner withdraws from an argument by refusing to interact, engage, communicate or participate in any way. This often enrages the partner who is in the state of the anxious monkey because now they are more anxious. That primal feeling comes up and they need the interaction to feel closer to their partner. Now they can’t get it, the primal anxiety feel more validated.
I typically don’t use the term ‘stonewalling’ because it implies that the partner is consciously and/or intentionally doing these behaviors. This is what is perceived for the partner listening to their anxious monkey. What is often going on is that partner is feeling overwhelmed and can’t process. Usually it is describe by this partner as shutting down.
People who describe ‘shutting down’ internally feel a flood of emotions (anxiety, frustration, shame, hurt, anger) and it feels too much to handle. Emotions are a form of information that we try to process to understand what is happening around us and give us context. When they feel overwhelming it is hard to process what is going on internally (“I’m disappointing her again” “He is going to leave me” “Why are we having this fight again?”) from what is being said from the other partner. In this state it feel impossible to listen to the emotions AND listen to the partner. Often they have trouble finding the right words to say. When they do they can be defensive or not fully formed.
More often than not, shame and anxiety are the most common emotional experiences when someone shuts down. People have describe it as if all their tools and skills have been stripped away and they are paralyzed in a state of helplessness. They can feel the shame of not being able to appease or tend to their partner’s needs. And if the process repeats itself then the guilt and shame can increase since they find further proof (in their eyes) that they are helpless or worthless to their partner. Those feelings are more validated and thus become more intense.
So what happens when this style of fight happens? The anxious monkey partner feels worse because their partner feels distant and that feels unsafe. The shutting down partner feels helpless and worthless and thus feels unsafe in the relationship as well.
What can be done?
Often when couples get into their style of arguing they get lost in the topic of the argument. Sometimes it can become defensive or critical. It can be helpful to understand what is going on to your partner when they are going through that state. It may be helpful to forgo the context of the argument and start exploring the felt experience and emotions that go on. What is is like for you? What are the emotions they are feeling? What are your fears when we get in those types of fights?
Recognizing and Externalizing
Understanding this pattern is helpful. Understanding that these are states and not who you are as a person is also important. Being able to label these experiences and internalization as a couple can help communicate to a partner what is going on for them when they do get in a fight. “My anxiety monkey is active, I want to make sure you’re okay being with me.” “I’m shutting down and my shame voices are really loud right now. Can we take a break?” A partner can also check in on the other partner to make sure they are alright. “Are you feeling overwhelmed?” “You seem really anxious right now.”
Take Time Outs
Particularly if a partner is shutting down, it is time to stop fighting and take a break. It will often not be helpful to stay in this mode since it often exacerbates both partners. Many couples have a hard time calling timeout, but it is important to find a way that works for you. For some people, a timeout word helps (“Rutabaga” “Stop”) . For others pantomiming actions (like slamming of car breaks) helps. Explore what might be helpful to your partner.
Obviously everyone wants to appease their partner and when they see their partner in distress, they want to address it right away. But sometimes we need to make sure we are in the right place to have these types of conversations. Airline safety videos always tell us to put the air mask on ourselves first before we assist others. If you do take breaks or timeouts how can you deescalate? Deep breathing or mindfulness exercises? Going for a walk? Taking a bath? Listening to music? What will work for you as an individual? This goes for both the anxious monkey and shutting down partner. It is also sometimes important to give yourself a mental or emotional check before engaging in a fight.
Obviously therapy can help. A therapist can help sort out some of these patterns and other patterns you may have. It is often hard to see these patterns and cycles of behaviors when you are in them. A couples therapist can help make sure both sides are heard and supported. They can also explore new ways to engage in arguments. Sometimes it is helpful to go to couples counseling but individual therapy can also help. There are times when one partner is wanting therapy and the other is not ready. Sometimes the fights feel too overwhelming to go into therapy. In individual therapy you can work on better understanding your own needs and experiences and learn how articulate them. Individual therapy can also help you learn to self sooth and take care of yourself.
Couples often get into patterns of cycles of behaviors. Sometimes they feel stuck and this often happens. Exploring new ways to have these arguments is important and it takes time. There is no one way to fight and every couple needs to find something that works for them. If something worked in a previous relationship or even worked for your parents, does not mean it will work for your current relationship. Keep exploring and keep trying to connect. In the end that is what both partners want.