By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Ever feel like your conversations with your partner get lost in translation? Or that a seemingly harmless comment sparks a spat? When the two of you communicate you may be unwittingly reinforcing a negative cycle of misunderstanding, bitterness and resentment, according to psychologist and couples specialist Robert Solley, Ph.D.
All couples can become disconnected. But “couples in trouble tend to fall into two camps: high-conflict and conflict-avoidant,” Solley said. “Both are disconnected in different ways.”
High-conflict couples typically attack each other with “criticism [and] commanding, sarcastic comments.” Similarly, conflict-avoidant couples also may go on the offensive but then withdraw, or they may withdraw all the time.
“Withdrawal isn’t bad in itself,” Solley said. He defined potentially problematic withdrawal as “anything that doesn’t reciprocate a bid for attention and connection.” For instance, in benign withdrawal, partner A may say that instead of talking with their partner, they’d rather listen to music because they’re exhausted, and partner B doesn’t mind. Withdrawal essentially becomes destructive when partners are on a different page. In other words, one partner wants to connect while the other retreats, he said. Over time, the partner who yearns for connection gets more intense in their pleas “to bring the other person in or let them know how distressed they are.” And this kicks off or continues a damaging cycle.
There are other cycles, too, and couples show a variety of disconnected patterns, Solley said. For example, both partners may be withdrawers. Conflict rarely arises because both take painstaking measures to circumvent potential disagreements and not push the other partner. These couples, Solley said, often feel less like romantic partners and more like roommates.
A Disconnected Dialogue
Solley provided an example of how a harmful pattern can play out in a conversation between couples. Again, he underscored that disconnected conversations can take many forms and “occur in different combinations” and that this example is simply a slice of a multi-layered pie.
Say your husband’s lead foot is making you uncomfortable. So you yell out: “Slow down! You’re driving like a maniac.”
“No, I’m not! It’s just that you drive ridiculously slow,” he says.
Frustrated, you put your headphones on and give him the silent treatment for the rest of the ride (or day!).
That might be the end of the conversation but it’s possibly the beginning of conflict or sour feelings.
So what just happened?
This basic example actually illustrates how insidious patterns can start and get perpetuated. Conversations between couples are incredibly complex where many things—many of which are unspoken—occur simultaneously, Solley said. This disconnected dialogue exhibits the following pattern:
criticism > defensiveness (or counterattack) > withdrawal
When you dig deeper, it’s easier to see the underlying emotions and concerns that emerge. For instance, as Solley said, the reason for your yelling may be that you’re scared for your safety. But all your husband hears is criticism and that you distrust his driving. In turn, he reacts defensively. Then you feel hurt because in your mind he’s dismissed you and doesn’t care about your concerns. This may make you feel deeply disconnected from each other, especially as the same cycles get repeated over time.