Q: Call me Nora. When Sam (also a pseudonym) and I get started on something we disagree about, it starts ok, we seem to agree, and then we are fighting all morning. It turns endless. Why is this, and should I send a recording? It would be easy. Thanks!
A: How many of our favorite interactional tactics actually align with our agreement to make life easier for each other wherever possible? (You have made this agreement right?). Couples’ agreements must simultaneously anchor their relationship and show up at the surface of any interaction. There are lots of interactional habits that don’t obviously connect to larger pro-relational goals such as making life easier. Rolling your eyes, ostentatious sighing or leading with accusation are obvious examples.
I think I hear in your question, Nora, an interactional bad habit I call the double-or-nothing. Summary: you follow up a successful conflict with another conflict. This makes it possible you'll fail at the second one, which will overshadow the success of the first one. This is probably not fear of success; it's a failure to see the importance of filing away wins for you, a distressed couple who needs wins, and should stop while you are ahead, at least for a little while.
For illustration I’ll imagine Nora and Sam sitting at breakfast, talking over what to do today, Saturday, your day off. As usual, you have different ideas and you get into it.
You arrive at something that works for both of you, working through conflict with fresh Saturday morning energy. In fact, along the way, let’s say Sam, in a difficult moment, has called last weekend a fiasco, a weekend that Nora had planned and enjoyed. This is a bad move by Sam—after all, you’re talking about this weekend, not last— but Nora seems able to ignore it at the moment—a good move following Sam's bad move! So they are able to agree on a plan for today. Success. However, that done, barely pausing a single beat, here’s Nora: “so why did you call last weekend a fiasco?” Sam, instead of apologizing for that as he should, now defends "fiasco", again at Nora’s expense, which Nora now can't resist taking issue with. More damaging things are said. This second, unnecessary conflict (now, a fight) over last week is the interaction they’ll remember, instead of the success they had had just before it where they worked out plans for today. They tried the double-or-nothing and both lost.
The double-or-nothing chains conflict topics together until a couple fights. There's something of an undertow dragging this couple, and many like them, towards a failure, and chaining is a series of waves pulling them out to sea. Our capacity and will to do conflict well is energized by emotional resources, and as those are drained it's difficult to do as well with successive conflicts as in the first one. So if you keep going, you are more likely to fail to stay regulated and start floundering. A fight that buries the previous success isn't what you think you want, but your behavior suggests some kind of pull towards failure that you are having trouble resisting.
To stop falling into the double-and-nothing and thus start to free yourself from the undertow, first agree that making things easier for each other is important to you both. Then agree to:
• Focus on one thing at a time, and stop as soon as you are successful. Stop!
• Mark the success somehow (a hug, a toast, a smile, a fist bump).
• Talk about something else. It would be best if you didn't revisit minor slights here and now that might have occured during the resolution of the conflict. But this can be hard to follow, so here's the second strategy: you can raise a slight from the previous conflict and the partner owns it without arguing over it. Partner's job is to know that your couple conflict quota has already been met, and their job is to soothe you around the slight, not defend it. It will help if your partner perceives you calling out the slight in a way that doesn't impugn their character. Impugn their character, and a fight will be your reward.
Here's what that could look like:
Sam:...so, phew, we figured out what we both want to do.
Nora: yes. But...you called last week a fiasco and I worked so hard on it!
Sam: Yes but it was a terrible time (Oops, no, now he's defending "fiasco". A fight will ensue. Let's pretend he didn't say this and and try again)
Sam: Yes, that wasn't kind. So sorry.
Nora: Thanks. Let's make sure to plan together better next time like we did today.
Notice that Sam isn't pretending that last weekend was better than he felt it was. He's simply realizing accurately that it wasn't kind to call the weekend she had prepared for them a "fiasco". That's pretty harsh, and very likely an exaggeration. And, with his growing interactional savvy, he knows that he doesn't want to follow a successful conflict resolution with a failure. Nora responds well here. Sam's immediate response was morale building and it gave Nora the opportunity to join in. But what if Nora doesn't respond quite so well?
Here, Sam doubles down on good interactional tactics while Nora struggles a bit:
Sam: Yes, that wasn't kind. So sorry.
Nora: Was it really a fiasco? I worked so hard. The undertow is pulling her to a double or nothing.
Sam: It was unkind and I exaggerated out of frustration and I shouldn't have. Sam resists the undertow. He doesn't mind repeating himself to do it.
Nora: Like what was so bad? The undertow is strong here. She's tempting him to say something she'll have to then fight.
Sam: I got tired and cranky on the hike. Sam points the finger at himself without saying that the hike she planned was too long! He resists the undertow.
Nora: Right. Yeah, you did! And I guess it was too long. This gives Nora an excuse to playfully join in, and while she does agree he was difficult on the hike, she sees that's not a great way to end and quickly self-owns the too-long hike.
Double or nothing: averted.
In reversing the undertow, notice how Sam & Nora the couple are both finger-pointing at themselves, one after the other. This kind of chaining is good news; it's a good interactional habit. As a reverse undertow it deposits the couple back up on the beach where they get their footing before going for a fun, lazy swim together.
Nora and Sam, be vigilant here, for a while, eyes on the prize, relax once the first success is in the bag. You are struggling against an interactional undertow that you have fed for too long, so reversing it is a matter of being deliberate. This vigilance is not walking on eggshells, it’s training yourselves to be more sensitive to what feeds the undertow, because you’ve agreed to amplify what makes life easy and reduce what makes life hard. A joint effort here will pay off and even reverse the pull towards failure. The agreement you've made to make life easier forces you to find out hows; the general answer is to replace interactional bad habits with better ones. Interactional bad habits get chained together like an undertow where my bad habit is matched by yours. It takes only one to interrupt it, and it's so much better if both do.