My three-year-old is super excited about Valentine’s Day — mostly because she knows that there’s going to be a party at preschool and that we’re going to make cupcakes to share with her friends. Tonight as I was getting her ready for bed, she asked me if tomorrow was Valentine’s Day. I told her that we still had a while to wait for that special day, but that tomorrow was GROUNDHOG DAY! Of course, this made no sense to her, and I explained a bit about Punxutawney Phil and six more weeks of winter…
Then I found myself thinking about the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray finds himself experiencing the same day over and over and over again. No matter what he does, weather reporter Phil Connors (Murray’s character) cannot escape February 2nd until he finds some karmic insight about his life and relationships.
This reminds me of a theme I see a lot in my work with couples. For so many, there is a kind of endless loop of the same conflict happening over and over. Even if the surface content of their arguments changes, the deeper issues often don’t. They land on my couch in total frustration, asking how to stop fighting so much and struggling to feel understood by each other.
Do you see the connection? Just like Phil Connors, we must pursue some meaningful insight in order to escape the endless loop of nearly identical conflicts. But the way to achieve this in relationships is by really slowing ourselves down to listen and understand what our partner needs and feels.
Here are the most common mistakes I see in couple conflict, how they keep us stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, and what you can do instead:
- Arguing about what actually happened. Look, there are always three versions of reality: Partner A’s version, Partner B’s version, and the objective truth. They’re never all the same, and there’s no point in trying to convince each other that what you believe happened is the objective reality. It’s a waste of time. If you can instead accept that each person experienced what happened from their own perspective, and that their experience is their reality, you’ll be able to move toward understanding and resolution MUCH more quickly. (There are certainly exceptions to this, such as if one partner is gaslighting the other — this is a more complex situation and must be addressed directly).
- Not really listening. I’ve discussed this in other blog posts, but it’s important enough to say again here. When you’re having a significant conversation with your partner, it’s imperative that you give that person your full attention, and focus on one person’s feelings at a time. When your partner is speaking, put your own opinions, feelings, and perspective aside and just focus on them. Too many of us get caught up in thinking about what we’re going to say in response, and this leads down a slippery slope to very ineffective listening. If each person can commit to really focused, empathic listening, you’ll be well-positioned to achieve real understanding and be on the path to true resolution.
- Communicating from a place of anger. Anger is a real emotion, but it rarely travels alone. We use anger to cover up other feelings that are more difficult to talk about. If your partner does something that hurts your feelings, it feels safer to talk about what s/he did wrong than to talk about how you were hurt by it. But getting out of anger and into the vulnerable emotion that the anger is protecting — and then sharing that vulnerable emotion with the other person — is vital to true, connected communication. It’s incredibly difficult to make yourself vulnerable to a person who just hurt you, but this is truly the key. Inviting your partner to hear and understand these vulnerable feelings will move them to want to help you feel better, rather than fostering defensiveness and more anger in response.
- Trying to find a resolution before both people feel understood. The most important message we can give to our partners is “I understand how you feel, and it matters to me.” Only when both partners have truly felt understood and valued by the other should the conversation move on to solution-finding. Very often, when one person’s emotions click for the other, there is a tendency to move immediately into a discussion of how to act differently in the future so that the negative emotional experience isn’t repeated. But unless both partners’ experiences are part of that equation, the solution is unlikely to be a lasting one.
- Putting your ego ahead of your relationship. Too often, people go into arguments with a focus on winning and being right, instead of focusing on finding the best outcome for the relationship itself. I’m not a huge Dr. Phil fan, but one thing he used to say really resonates with me: “Do you wanna be right, or do you wanna be happy?” Let go of being right, and see how much better you feel in the long run. I promise it’s worthwhile.
What other bad conflict habits keep you stuck having the same argument over and over? Sound off in the comments!
Lindsey Hoskins & Associates provides couple, family, and individual therapy in downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA. Call or email us today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation!