Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

IN CONSULTATION; A Fighting Chance: Replacing Angry Closeness with Positive Connection

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

IN CONSULTATION; A Fighting Chance: Replacing Angry Closeness with Positive Connection

Article excerpt

Q : One couple I see constantly gets into explosive fights. What does it mean, and what should I do?

A: Contrary to what you might think, explosive fighting in couples can be a good sign. I believe it means that the partners don't want to disengage. Fighting may be a bad habit, but it also shows that each still cares what the other one thinks, which augurs well for the relationship. I developed this theory after years of seeing explosive couples and noticing that they were almost always long-term partners who had grown apart. He had his work and golf; she had her career and the kids. They were going about their business, leading disconnected lives, and then when the distance became intolerable, someone would find a reason to spark a fight. Suddenly, they would experience intense emotions: they cared, they hated, they cried, they yelled, they got things off their chests. For some couples, fights are the only way they know to get each other's attention. If you view the pattern of turning differences and disagreements into World War III as a sign that the partners are craving closeness, it can lift you--the therapist--out of the role of arbiter and referee. Instead, your job becomes helping them develop tools for connecting in a positive way.

I remember one couple, Jim and Elaine, who had been married for 25 years and had been combatants for all 25. When they were younger, they would have great sex after a fight, but now they would simmer for a day or so and then settle back into their emotionally disconnected lives. I established right away that Jim had never hit or even threatened to hit Elaine (you always have to check this, because it would be very different therapy if physical violence were involved).

I start all my work by looking at the family of origin to see what kinds of models couples have for handling differences and being close. Jim, an accountant in his late fifties, had grown up in a big Irish family. His father, who had a short fuse and drank a lot, would grow surly. His mother would start hurling insults at him. And then they would attack each other at top volume, blaming each other for all their woes and bringing up past transgressions and humiliations. Elaine, a part-time antiques dealer in her early fifties, had grown up as the elder of two in a Jewish family, and her parents, when under stress, bickered nonstop, criticizing each other about every little thing.

Like a detective excited about finding a piece of corroborating evidence, I pointed out to Elaine and Jim the similarity of their fighting to patterns in their families of origin. This had exactly zero impact. "Yeah, yeah," they said, "isn't that interesting," but it didn't stop the fights.  I told them I wanted them to remember that their tendency to fight didn't come from nowhere; it was connected to what they had learned about intimacy and closeness. Conflict of any kind is close contact--even though it's negative, it does maintain a connection. The trouble, I told them, was twofold: while they cared about each other--which they proved every time they fought--they did not have a mechanism for handling differences or disagreements. Underlying this issue was the fact that they had no other way to be close. They rarely made love, they had few shared interests and, with the children away at college, they had even less to talk about.

I asked them to commit themselves to an experiment in transforming the poisonous atmosphere of their relationship. …

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