Richard Bloom MFT 09312
couples and conflict
Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Shadow of the Wind
Larry and Monica are embarrassed about their last argument. It began over what kind of container to use for the leftover dinner. Before either of them realized it, he was storming out the front door and she was sobbing uncontrollably as she stuffed clothes into a suitcase. Neither of them could remember how the fight had escalated so quickly. While they had no doubt that they loved each other, they were seriously questioning their ability to live together.
Jim and Mary fight about sex. The spontaneous lovemaking of their first year has given way to a sulky struggle. He whines petulantly that she is never in the mood, but when she approaches him, he often rebuffs her. She angrily shouted at him last night that their passionate courtship had been a lie, that she had just pretended to be turned on by him in order to please him. While there was a grain of truth to her taunt, mostly she just wanted to hurt him. And she hit the mark. He grabbed her and threw her up against the wall. They were both shocked. Mary was frightened, Jim ashamed, but something had happened between them that could not be erased.
Byron and Suzanne never argue at all. They treat each other politely, even considerately, but they are both disturbed that the spark seems to have gone out of their relationship. They are livelier with other people and feel a quiet dread about their home life.
Each of the people in these couples feels trapped, under the thumb of their partner, resentful that they have so little control over their lives. But if no one feels powerful, who is in charge? Issues of power and control are a normal part of life and of every relationship. How and if a couple resolves them determines the health of that relationship. When Larry suggested that Monica use a smaller container for the leftovers, she heard her mother pestering her and telling her that she never did anything right. She shouted at him to leave her alone. "Pick pick pick, all you do is pick pick pick," she sneered at him. Larry hates being pushed away. His mother was often angry and demeaning to him when he displeased her, and that gets replayed every time Monica is annoyed with him. And when she wants a little time on her own, he feels shut out the way he would when his mother's anger turned cold on him. In this instance Monica's irritation is not unfounded. Larry is often critical of her. He learned at an early age that faultfinding was a way to keep the upper hand. In his family there were those who criticized and blamed and those who were incompetent and at fault. He had worked hard to be the former, not the latter. Making decisions together seems impossible because each person fears being overcome by the other. If Monica uses the smaller container, Larry must be the boss.
When Jim and Mary resist each other's advances, they demonstrate their independence. Even Byron and Suzanne, who avoid all conflict, resent each other because they imagine that they are deferring constantly to the other's wishes and never getting what they want.
As each couple learns to unravel these knots, they are able to talk about the relationship instead of getting caught in the symbolic fights which can get out of hand so easily, sometimes ending up in the hospital or in court. When Larry is able to acknowledge that he is frightened by Monica's independence, when she in turn tells him of her fear of being overwhelmed by the relationship, of losing her identity, they have taken the first crucial steps toward working together to create trust and intimacy.
Richard Bloom, mft, is a psychotherapist with over 40 years experience helping individuals and couples. He has offices in Santa Rosa and Berkeley.
For more information or to schedule an appointment call: 707-665-0846.