Hidden Longings: that fight wasn't about the dirty dishes

from dirty dishes to dirty fighting

Have you ever had a fight with your partner over something "silly?" She leaves her dirty coffee cup on the table, he forgets to pick up your favorite cereal at the grocery store, they don't text you back for four hours. Part of you can see these moments as small blips in the larger story of your relationship, but a more primal part of you feels furious, hurt, abandoned. You respond with nagging, criticism, judgments or withdrawal. She comes back with a snappish defense or a complaint of her own, and before you know it you're both waist deep in an argument that feels both familiar and overwhelming. How on earth did you get here, all because of a dirty coffee cup?!

a request works better than criticism

Sometimes a nasty fight is set off by the way we bring up our complaint. We use a critical or contemptuous tone, our partner gets defensive, and BAM! the fight is on. I've written previously about this cycle, and offered some suggestions for a more effective and peaceful way to address dissatisfaction. Basically, the more kind, gentle and nonjudgmental your request, the better. Take a look: Sweeten the Request: a lesson in effective complaining.

maybe it's not just about the dirty dishes

However, effective communication skills are only helpful when we're calm enough to remember them. When "small things" trigger intense emotions, it's hard to stay rational. When your feelings flare hot and quick, the fight may not be about the "small thing"--it might be a sign of a deeper, more complex hurt.

Imagine the feelings that arise in you during these types of situations. Do you feel deeply wounded, threatened, devalued, or invisible? Do you start to question the very connection between you and your partner? Do you feel transported back to feelings or memories of old hurts from childhood or previous relationships? Think of the statements you might say to yourself in these moments. "Doesn't he care?" "Am I not a priority?" "Do I even matter to her?" If any of these thoughts show up, combined with that strong flash of intense feelings, you might be experiencing the pain of an unmet attachment need.

underneath every protest is a longing

For most animals, humans especially, survival depends on forming strong bonds with others. That craving for connection is hard-wired into us from the moment we are born. The deep and instinctual need for attachment (via feeding, comforting, eye contact, a felt sense that our person will be there when we most need them) helps parent and child navigate the vulnerable first stages of life.  It is because these secure bonds are so important that a baby will panic and protest when their attachment needs aren't being met. The shrill and amazingly loud scream from a tiny baby? That scream is a panicked protest--a highly effective alarm system designed to get mama or papa to show up NOW.

Our need for connection and security doesn't go away in adulthood, and neither does our tendency to protest when our needs aren't met. We all want to know that we can count on our loved ones to see us, care about us, understand us, listen to us. We want to know that we are important, that we matter, that our loved ones think of us, consider us, and hold us in their minds. This craving for connection is so strong that we will inevitably protest when it's not met. That intense response and subsequent fight about the coffee cup? Consider it a panicked protest about not feeling seen, heard, considered or loved, and a longing for reassurance of the bond. However, when our protests take the form of criticism or withdrawal, they only serve to push our loved ones further away rather than bringing them closer.

bringing awareness to your attachment needs

The more aware and accepting we can be of our attachment needs, the more likely we are to understand our strong emotional responses as helpful information. If you view your strong reaction to the coffee cup as a sign that you're feeling ignored, abandoned, or not considered in your relationship, then that gives you an opportunity to have a much different conversation with your partner. Coming to your partner from a place of softness and vulnerability,  being able to say "I need to know I matter" can have a much different path than grumping at them about the dirty coffee cup.

Of course, expressing a need for connection and reassurance isn't easy. It feels vulnerable, scary, and risky. Couples therapy, particularly Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), helps couples shift out of repetitive cycles of unresolved conflict and refocus on expressing the underlying fears and unmet needs. When you can do this, the conversation changes: 

"You're a jerk for not doing the dishes" becomes "I want to know I matter to you."

"Just leave me alone" becomes "You're so important to me, and I'm worried I'll disappoint you."

Again, such vulnerable conversations aren't easy, and tending to unmet attachment needs won't prevent you from being annoyed about dirty dishes. But recognizing and communicating the deeper longings can help you side step the whirlpool of criticism and defense, and take you to the heart of the matter: the need for a strong, secure attachment.

don't go it alone

Want to know more about my work with couples, or talk with me about how therapy might help you and your partner? Visit: COUPLES THERAPY

a little comic relief