Even happy couples fight.
Dick and Emma have been together for 4 years, minus a 4 month break-up. They love each other immensely. They are happy, they rarely fight BUT when they do it gets nasty. Arguments escalate very quickly and usually end up with slamming of doors, name calling, throwing things and one of them sleeping in the guest bedroom. How does this happen?? Why?
It’s a safety thing.
Let me explain.
Emma: We need to book our vacation. Soon everything will be sold out.
Dick: I don’t have any money. You said you were going to pay for the hotel but the other day you took that back and wanted to split it with me.
Emma: That’s not true. I said if you can contribute something that would be fair since you are going too.
Dick: You make $25000 a year more than me. I can’t afford it. So I’m not going. You can go by yourself.
Emma: But you had money when we went to Vegas. That’s what you wanted to do and I sucked it up. Now that I want to go to the beach all of a sudden you don’t have any money?
Dick: I guess we’re in two different places in our lives. You don’t want what I want and I don’t care for the beach.
Emma: What are you talking about??!
Dick storms out of the room, slams the door. Emma takes her phone and book and goes into the guest bedroom where she spends the night.
They think money is the problem.
I think this is a safety issue.
In couples counseling I talk a lot about safety. Safety, or lack there of, is the reason why seemingly insignificant matters turn into huge fights. A relationship may be physically safe. You may even be in a happy marriage. But sometimes the other person, the one person you love the most is the one hurting you by making your relationship emotionally and mentally unsafe for you.
This is how the argument really plays out in their heads. This is what they don’t say.
Emma: I’ve been looking forward to this vacation. I want to make sure you’re not bailing out on me at the last minute like you have done before. I want to know I can rely on you to come through on your promise. That’s safe.
Dick: You said you were going to pay for the hotel but I knew you were going to change your mind and ask me for money like you have done before. So now I will punish you by not going.
Emma: You’re right I did say that but then I changed my mind. I want to ensure no one is able to take advantage of me. I won’t allow that. It’s happened before and that’s unsafe for me.
Dick: I feel inferior for making less money and I’m unhappy with my job and you remind me of that. I feel unsafe. By saying I won’t go I’m protecting myself.
Emma: Same old shit! I’m getting pissed. It’s always about you and what you want. That’s always more important then what I want.
Dick: What I want IS more important. You’re happy with your life here. I’m not. You’ll probably just end up leaving me in the end anyway.
Emma: Here we go again. Your abandonment issues leave me indifferent. Who said I’m leaving?!
At this point they both do the very thing that makes the other feel unsafe even more. By slamming the door and leaving the room Dick reinforces Emma’s belief that he is mean and capable of taking advantage of her. By sleeping in the guest bedroom Emma reinforces Dick’s fear that Emma will leave.
Individuals are incapable of thinking about their partner’s safety when they themselves feel unsafe. By slamming the door Dick feels safe as he reassures himself that he’s tough and doesn’t need anyone. By sleeping in the guest bedroom Emma feels safe as she reassures herself that no one will take advantage of her again.
Now this story has a happy ending. But only because both partners, after they have established their own safety, can go back to each other and help make the relationship safe again. Dick and Emma have silently, and sometimes unconsciously, worked on this over the years. So the morning looks like this: Emma goes back to bed and cuddles up to Dick who thinks this is Emma’s apology but doesn’t realize that Emma knows he needs to be reassured that he won’t be abandoned.
Dick allows himself to be vulnerable. He is able to articulate that this is simply bad timing financially for him due to things outside of his control and asks for help in covering the cost of the hotel. He takes back saying he won’t go and takes over the task of finding a reasonable hotel. This way he reestablishes safety for Emma by showing that he cares and it’s not just about the money.
Emma pays for the hotel which she doesn’t really mind doing anyway.
The reasons why reestablishing safety for your partner is often hard are (a) you feel unsafe yourself (b) you don’t know how (c) you know how but refuse to because you’re Ego is in the way and (d) all of the above.
Inability to reestablish safety for your partner will lead to constant conflict, loss of trust, painful feelings and heartbreak, and eventually loss of affection and even separation. Dick and Emma know that process all too well.
Does your story have a happy ending?
Do you know what makes you and your partner emotionally unsafe? Do you know how to reestablish safety for them and for yourself?