Has Your Spouse Become Your Enemy? 3 steps to resolving your fights and loving each other again! BY SHARON M. RIVKIN, MA, MFT
Your first argument is likely rooted in emotions that haven't been resolved since childhood.
“ Clearly, the tension between them had roots that went much deeper than any conscious intention. Their task now was to understand those roots.”
Months before they married, Kyle told Hilary he wanted to dance with her at their wedding. Hilary agreed, and they signed up for dancing lessons. But when the wedding day arrived, the train on Hilary’s dress made it too awkward for them to dance together. Kyle was terribly disappointed. To make matters worse, though he had clearly told Hilary that he didn’t want her to stuff cake in his mouth, she went ahead and did it anyway. When his face burned red with embarrassment, as he’d told her it would, she laughed at him.
"Don’t take it so seriously!" she said. "It’s just a little frosting on your face. Everybody does it."
To Kyle, of course, it wasn’t "just a little frosting." And not being able to dance wasn’t just a little glitch, either. When Kyle was a child, his older siblings mercilessly teased him. Though he’s a very attractive man, he has little natural self-confidence and it matters a great deal to him that he appears poised and self-assured. Having trampled on Hilary’s satin train as he tried to dance with her and then having had cake smashed on his face, he felt humiliated by her and doubly betrayed.
By the time they came to my office, Kyle had reached the point of telling Hilary that he didn’t love her anymore and Hilary said that Kyle was impossibly critical.
Then I asked them the question, "Do you remember your first argument?" Kyle began to describe his bitter disappointment on their wedding day. Hilary listened with amazement. "I had no idea you were still so upset about that," she said. It hadn’t occurred to them that this incident remained unresolved, and they could see that they were still struggling with the same dynamic of the same conflict.
This realization did not bring a sense of hopeless entrapment—it brought relief, for they realized that neither had been plotting to torment the other. Clearly, the tension between them had roots that went much deeper than any conscious intention. Their task now was to understand those roots.
Do You Really Know What You’re Fighting About?
The first step to understanding these roots is to look at your cycle of arguments. We usually fight repeatedly about different things, yet end up saying the same hurtful remarks that only lead to anger and resentment. Nothing gets resolved. Why is that? As we see with Hilary and Kyle, they weren’t really fighting about their first dance or cake in his face at the wedding, those were just triggers. They were really fighting about Kyle’s lack of self-confidence and Hilary’s feeling of not being taken seriously. As you can see, since you don’t understand what you’re really fighting about, it’s hard to resolve anything!
How do you find out what you’re really arguing about? By looking at your very first argument or relationship disappointment, which is the beginning of the argument cycle. Then, by uncovering the core issue of your first argument, you’ll see that the roots of the argument are in your childhood and it’s the underlying reason for all the fights that follow, no matter what the fight is about. Whenever your core childhood issue gets triggered, you want to fight, because you’ve been hurt just like when you were a child.
The First Argument Technique
How do you uncover your core issues? By using the First Argument Technique, a 3-step process that can resolve years of conflict into understanding, which leads to hope, resolution, and love:
1. PEEL. Peel away the topic of the conflict to locate your personal history that makes you react so strongly—your "core issue." How do you do this? Start by revisiting your first argument or your most recent fight with your spouse. Picture or remember another time in your childhood where you felt the same way, i.e., angry, hurt, misunderstood, not valued, invalidated, etc.
2. REVEAL. Once you reveal that memory, you begin to have a deeper understanding of why you react so strongly to what your partner does and says in a fight. You also have a deeper understanding of what triggers you and why you’ve been reacting the way you do.
3. HEAL. By communicating your story to your partner, the doors start opening and you both begin to finally understand and empathize with each other about what’s really been going on. Because you’re not so heated by the argument, you can actually talk instead of the fight escalating. Now you’re armored with a system that brings resolution instead of each fight adding to the endless pile of conflict.
Remember that when dealt with, the first argument is small. When put aside, it becomes bigger and bigger to the point of being overwhelming and unsolvable. Therefore, save yourself and the loved ones in your life pain by understanding that the first argument—the most crucial argument you’ll ever have—it is a tool for healing that will spare yourself years of grief, hopelessness, and helplessness in your marriage.
Also known as the "last ditch effort therapist," Sharon M. Rivkin, therapist and conflict resolution/affairs expert, is the author of "Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy" and developer of the First Argument Technique, a 3-step system that helps couples fix their relationships and understand why they fight. Her work has been featured in Oprah Magazine, Reader's Digest, Time.com, Yahoo!News.com, WebMD.com, and DrLaura.com. Sharon has appeared on TV, was quoted on The Insider TV show, and makes regular radio appearances nationwide. She has also appeared on Martha Stewart Whole Living Radio and is the "Resident Shrink" on Coach Ron Tunick's radio show, The Business of Life, on KKZZ 1400AM. For more information, please visit her website at www.sharonrivkin.com.