NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Challenge of Keeping Small Arguments From Developing Into Big Conflicts in Your Relationship

As a psychotherapist in New York City who works with individual adults and couples, one of the most common dynamics I see in people who are married or in committed relationship is that small arguments often escalate into bigger conflicts because one or both people have problems communicating without "adding fuel to the fire." This often results in verbal abuse (see my article: Relationships: When Expressing Your Feelings Turns Into Verbal Abuse).

Keeping Small Arguments From Becoming Big Conflicts

It can be a real challenge to maintain your cool and be your "best self" when your spouse or partner is critical or yelling at you.  Your first instinct might be to retaliate and respond by hurling back criticism. 

This often leads more accusations from your spouse.  As the argument escalates, it often gets completely off the original topic and it can result in  into accusations that are increasingly hurtful.

This dynamic can become an entrenched part of the relationship and, over time, it can erode the positive feelings that you feel for each other.  It's not unusual for couples, who don't know how to stop engaging in this destructive pattern of communication, to end their relationship.

Let's take a look at a vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed to preserve confidentiality, that illustrates how a couple learned to overcome this destructive dynamic:

Mary and Ned:
By the time Mary and Ned came to couples counseling, they could barely be in the same room together without getting into an argument that spiraled down into critical accusations and counter accusations.

They had been living together for 10 years.  They both agreed that, after the first few years, their relationship had become contentious with frequent arguments.  Often, small arguments that started out as bickering escalated into big arguments.

At the point when they came to couples counseling, Mary wanted to break up, but Ned wanted to make one last effort to save their relationship.  He was the one who persuaded Mary, who was skeptical of therapy, to try couples counseling before they called it quits.

As they each recounted their early days in the relationship, it was apparent that they both had fond memories of their early days together.  Talking about these early days and how in love they were at the time brought them closer together both physically and emotionally in the session.

Whereas they began the session with each of them sitting at either end of my couch, they moved in closer to each other as each one of them talked about what s/he liked about the other when they first met.

Ned said that he still loved Mary and, despite their problems, he felt they could salvage their relationship if they could stop the arguing so much.

After talking about all the things that attracted her to Ned when they first met, qualities that she felt he still possessed and that she admired, Mary conceded that, underneath her anger and hurt, she loved Ned. She just felt hopeless that they could ever resolve their problems.  But she was willing to try before they broke up.

Considering how serious their problems were, it was a hopeful sign that Mary and Ned were each able to see positive attributes in the other and still loved each other, even if that love was buried under a lot of hurt, disappointment and anger.

Over time in couples counseling, they were each surprised that they had adopted one or both of their parents way of arguing.

Mary recognized her pattern as similar to her mother's, where her mother would relentlessly badger the father to try to get him to do things around the house.

She saw that, after feeling frustrated with Ned, she would become angry and shrill, especially when Ned ignored her.

Ned recognized his pattern of "stonewalling" Mary as the same way his father often responded to his mother (see Relationships: Are You a Stonewaller?).  It was his way of "zoning out" and ignoring Mary when he felt fed up.

He admitted that he often got pleasure, initially, from seeing Mary lose her temper.  But, after a while, Ned couldn't stand it any more, and he would lose his temper and accuse Mary of being "a bitch."

Then, Mary would respond by cursing back at him.  And, after that, they were in a full blown argument with both of them yelling and cursing at one another.

As Mary and Ned each recounted their own behavior, they both looked embarrassed and remorseful.  They each acknowledged their own part in these arguments, but they didn't know how to stop.

Working on changing their communication wasn't easy.  Their pattern was deeply entrenched.  We did a lot of role plays about the issues that they typically argued about, and we also looked at the underlying issues that were the basis for many of their arguments.

I gave them assignments to practice at home, including:
  • keeping individual journals to express their feelings (see my article: Journal Writing Can Relieve Stress and Anxiety)
  • asking for they wanted from each other without resorting to name calling and power struggles (see my article: Relationships: Overcoming Power Struggles).
  • learning to listen to each other in a respectful way
  • learning to negotiate compromises
  • taking "time out" when one or both of them felt an argument was beginning to escalate out of control
  • setting aside time each week to talk to each other about matters that were important to each of them
  • finding ways to renew the enjoyment they used to feel with one another
As is often the case, progress wasn't linear.  There were many instances of one step forward and two steps back.  But, after a few weeks in couples counseling, they were both motivated--even Mary, who was initially skeptical about counseling--to work on their relationship.  And, this motivation carried them through the challenging times.

After a few months, Mary and Ned saw progress.  They each reported that, even during times when they both felt tempted to resort to yelling and name calling, they each maintained their overarching goal to prevent small arguments from developing into big conflicts.

They still argued from time to time, as most couples do but, for the most part, these arguments rarely escalated into big arguments.

Getting Help in Therapy
Communication problems are common in relationships.

If you and your spouse or partner have been unable to change a destructive communication pattern in your relationship, you could benefit from working with a licensed therapist who has expertise in helping couples to change this dynamic.

As is true for most problems, it's easier to change early on before a pattern becomes an entrenched part of a relationship.  So, if you would like to salvage your relationship, don't wait to get help.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my article:  Relationships: Improving Communication