Recently there have been a number of discussions — on Facebook and elsewhere — about couples fighting in public. Most of us don’t get into the kind of marital slugging matches routinely featured on Bravo’s “Real Housewives” where spouses are likely to rip off their wigs and use them as blunt instruments to beat spouses around the head and shoulders. However, most of us have at least been within earshot of a heated relationship spat.
One of the worst things about being around a couple fighting in public is that it triggers feelings and memories from your childhood when you were around conflict. I remember squirming with anxiety as a kid when my grandparents would “get into it.” They had a notorious conflictual relationship around each other (although they were always wonderful to me).
Their spats were the stuff of legend in my family. My uncle once joked at my grandparents’ 60th anniversary at what a remarkable achievement it was, “especially since you’ve spent 59 of those years not speaking to each other.” Whatever anxieties I felt at being around their conflicts, it was an excellent training ground for my later work as a therapist. In fact, I recall the anniversary party well, because I, then in my 20s and a budding psychotherapist, was called on to broker a truce between my grandparents so they could have their picture taken together.
The photographer wanted them seated next to each other on a sofa, but my grandmother refused to sit on the same piece of furniture as my grandfather. After an hour of spirited dialogue, my grandmother was persuaded to perch on the arm of the sofa while my grandfather sat in the center of it. Thus, their picture was struck for all posterity, with their chins thrust forward in eternal, stubborn defiance.
Here’s some wisdom I’ve learned, both in my own relationship of 30 years with my wife, Kathlyn, but also in helping several thousand couples sort out the conflicts in their relationship, including my grandparents. All arguments between couples are a race for the “victim” position.
Here are the three steps that couples take to creating more conflict:
1. One or both claim the “victim” position.
2. Escalation (Provide more reasons that you’re the “victim.”)
3. Get agreement (Recruit one or more friends who agree you’re the “victim.”)
Here’s how it plays out:
Partner A makes a claim for the “victim” position with a comment like, “I wish I had your life! You sit around all day working on your computer while I have to fight traffic all the way to the office!” Partner B does not usually agree with this version of reality, so Partner B says, “At least you’ve got somebody to talk to. When you get home at night, you’ve been around people all day, so you don’t want to exchange a word with me!” Now Partner A and Partner B have staked their claim to the “victim” position, and the argument has escalated.
The latter step — getting agreement — is an essential part of every argument. To win an argument, you have to prove that other people agree with you, so you recruit others for that purpose. (“It’s not just me that thinks you’re a slob. Janie and Sammie and Phil all told me what a slob you are even before I knew you.”) Some people I’ve worked with discover, to their dismay and amazement, that their whole friendship network consists of people who agree that each other are “victims.”
The healthier your relationship, the more likely you are to have an entirely different kind of relationship network. In healthy relationships, partners don’t try to play the “victim” card. When things come up, both people take responsibility for them and resolve them from a position of 100 percent responsibility. What we need around us are friends who will nudge us to claim responsibility rather than play the “victim” card.
Maybe that’s the ultimate value of being around a conflict in public — it can inspire us to look at where we’re claiming the “victim” position.