“The problem,” Jessica said, “is we fight, but we never actually resolve anything. I feel like we are just drifting further and further apart.” Her husband Dan, speaks up. “Well, she’s constantly bringing up the past. She can never let anything go and I can’t even remember the things she’s upset about. I feel like there’s no way I can win.”

Jessica and Dan’s situation is common. Jessica feels like Dan never hears her and Dan feels helpless to change. What is actually happening here?

What Jessica Wants

Jessica  wants something desperately from Dan that she can’t get. When fights center on past events, Jessica wants Dan to understand her pain and take some responsibility for causing it. Events have occurred which have reinforced her feelings of sadness and hurt. The antidote for sadness and hurt is understanding and often includes assuming some responsibility for causing the hurt. It often also includes taking action to change the behaviors and attitudes which have caused the hurt.

What Dan Needs

When Jessica asks or demands that Dan listen to her and help her to feel better, Dan doesn’t hear her needs, but rather he hears a repetitive nagging and criticism of himself. He initially responds with defensiveness. He is unable to hear what Jessica is really asking for, because her demands feel like an attack, and he feels like he needs to don his armor to protect himself. He may believe he has done everything he can to make her feel better, with no results. This makes Dan feel hopeless. Eventually, if he continues to feel that he can’t change anything, he may withdraw.

A number of different scenarios may develop if this pattern continues without any healthy resolution. Jessica may begin to withdraw and isolate from Dan because she doesn’t feel that he cares about her feelings. Dan may withdraw from Jessica because he feels continually attacked. The feelings of isolation and desperation spiral. One or both may look for someone who understands them outside the relationship. One or both may develop addictions or accelerate in using addictions to ease and numb the pain.

Breaking Free of Couples Conflict

How can they break out of this pattern?

  1. Instead of reacting defensively, Dan needs to be able to hear and understand what Jessica is saying. This can be difficult, because Dan will probably have plenty of his own resentment. And he will want Jessica to understand his side. However, if he can hear her and understand her, his understanding can be a life-preserver for the relationship.
  2. Jessica needs to talk to Dan in a way he can hear her more easily. This means addressing the issues more from her perspective and her feelings instead of criticizing Dan and what he has or hasn’t done.
  3. Jessica and Dan both should try to stay relatively calm. It is usually unproductive to try to discuss issues when either partner is really upset.
  4. When Jessica’s needs for understanding are addressed in a new way, she will begin to feel like Dan cares about her again.
  5. Jessica needs to let Dan know that she appreciates his understanding and the new way he is responding to her. This helps Dan to feel like he is cared about, rather than criticized.
  6. Dan also needs Jessica to listen to and understand what has been going on for him in their relationship dynamic.

Is Your Relationship in Conflict?

Are you struggling in your relationship but don’t know how to break free of the pattern of couples conflict? In my next post, I’ll give specific steps and exercises you can use to help you change this pattern. If you need help now, I’d highly recommend you contact a competent relationship counselor or couples therapist (GoodTherapy.org or PsychologyToday.com are good places to start). There are many competent professionals who are skilled and compassionate in supporting both parties and helping both feel understood, while working toward the goal of reconnection.

Amy Gray is a licensed professional therapist serving clients in the Denver metro area. She can be reached at 720-312-7817.