Advice for Couples Who Are Stuck in Reactionary Fighting

Sevin Philips, MFT, offers tools to create emotional safety, the first step toward being able to have meaningful conversations that lead to true healing.

The ability to communicate difficult feelings is an art. Hard feelings lead people to blame others and to defend or explain their intentions, leaving the one hurt not feeling understood. Sevin Philips, MFT, walks you through communication skills to help you better understand and ultimately work out your issues.
Communication Tool: Listening Exercise

Communication Skills in a Relationship – Vulnerability (transcript)

Hello, this is Sevin Philips, licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m here to talk about another communication skill that will help you become vulnerable with your partner at the root level of healing, especially the big topics in our lives. We need to be able to talk about the hard subjects in a way that is really effective.

One thing that happens is at the root level of almost all fighting – even some of the mundane, small fights that we have – are often linked to deeper issues. Somehow our needs are not being met – whether it’s our need to be loved, our need to be respected, our need to feel connected. Something’s not happening. If we are able to identify it and talk about it with our partners, we’re not going to be able to work it out.
What people usually do is act it out. They act it out by being mean or ornery. Perhaps you shut down and you don’t do anything at all. We all learned a lot of skills when we were growing up that don’t always help us. But this skill today I’m going to teach you is really going to help you as a first step to be able to talk.

Usually when somebody brings up something that’s very hard to hear and painful, we often blame, defend our position, or even say that our intention wasn’t to do that. What ends up happening is that the person who’s hurt doesn’t feel understood and no real healing can happen.

Here’s what’s great about this. Let me give you an analogy. For instance, somebody’s house is burning down and you’re coming into that house and you’re saying one of two things. You’re saying like, “Oh my God, I intended to get water but I didn’t,” or you’re saying that “I didn’t get water. Let me tell you why.” Whatever it is you’re defending or your intention is doesn’t matter. If someone house is on fire, please address the fire.

When I say this it doesn’t mean that you’re taking up blame for the fire. It doesn’t mean that you’re trying to make the person feel better. What you really need to do is address it. Be present for it. Give the person some attention. This is the person you love and they’re in pain regardless of the chicken or the egg or where it started. This is a very important skill.

The first thing to do is a mirroring exercise that I teach with my couples. What you do is you each take turn sharing. It’s simple on the surface, but a little more harder to do. What I suggest is that you decide who goes first. That first person sharing is going to share for under three minutes. Be kind because the person’s going to have to repeat back the things that you said, so you want to keep it to the point as possible.

When you’re sharing, you’re not to be interrupted, and when you’re finished, the person on the other end (the person that was listening who didn’t interrupt you) is going to say, “What I heard you say is…” You start it off like that and you basically bullet point what you heard. You don’t add anything. You don’t even explain anything. You just are repeating back what the person said to you and then you end with, “Did I miss anything important?” If the person missed something important, you only re-say the thing that they missed and then they have to repeat back the thing that they missed, and then that is done.

Then you switch it around and the other person gets the chance to share. This mirroring or listening exercise is really great at allowing a lot of rules to help you share in a safe place that doesn’t get interrupted, it really helps the person learn how to listen about what you really said and not what they think you said, and in the end I suggest that you don’t talk about the subject for 24 hours. I say this because I want you to feel some success in having this listening exercise where you’re like, “Wow, I felt hurt and we didn’t fight about it. That’s great.”

At the end of 24 hours, I often find – not always – that couples come back and they say, “You know what, we didn’t even want to talk about it after 24 hours,” which for me says that oftentimes the things that we’re fighting over, once we’re understood and heard, really aren’t as important because we feel loved and cared for.

I hope this helps and I hope the exercise helps you feel more vulnerable and work stuff out. Thank you. Bye-bye.