A couple is in the supermarket. The husband is walking past the vegetable section, and is approaching his wife, who has been on another isle.
W: (sounding annoyed) Aren’t you going to pick up vegetables?
H: (with defensiveness) I haven’t gotten there yet…
W: (sounding more irritated) What do you mean? You’ve just walked past it!
H: (in an angry tone) If you want vegetables, go get them yourself!
W: (angry and contemptuous) Why is it you can never do a decent job of shopping for food? You always pick up junk. You act like a 12-year-old sometimes, you know that?
H: (raising his voice) I’m tired of you telling me what to do! I’m not your slave! Do your own shopping from now on, will you?
W: (sneering with contempt) That’s right. Another job you are pushing off on me. You make me sick…
H: (looks away in stony silence).
Imagine a waterfall of negativity tumbling downhill. It is what scientists call “a cascading sequence of responses” in which one partner (in this case, the wife) expresses criticism. It might have been a complaint, except for her (“you idiot”) tone. The other partner (the husband) responds with defensiveness, causing the wife to react to this defensiveness with contempt, sarcasm, and/or hostility. Next, the partner withdraws from, or stonewalls, the conversation.
We know quite a bit about conversations like this, and how to correct them in troubled marriages.
Over and over, couples in problematic cascading sequences rehash their “point,” their irritations with their partner, the tone their partner used that “set them off,” or what the other person “really meant” by what they said: (“That’s not what I said.” “Yes you did.” “No I didn’t!” “Yes you did, and what you meant was…”)
Gottman calls these types of interactions: “absorbing states of negativity.” When the pattern becomes chronic, he says, they end up “imprisoned in a roach motel for lovers: They check in, but they can’t check out.”
John Gottman was once asked in an interview “What do couples fight about?” His response was, “Nothing.“
This is is an example of what he means.
This argument is not about vegetables. Or shopping. The argument is not about food shopping at all. In fact, if it weren’t for the fight, both might say they enjoy going out shopping, and the wife might even tell you that she prefers to select the vegetables herself.
Now imagine this same conversation going more constructively.
Here’s an example of the husband changing it around.
In relationships where there is an abundance of good will (what Gottman calls “positive sentiment override”) a negative tone is often ignored or reframed positively, in this case as “tired.” Even a statement that a neutral observer would label as “hostile,” is not understood that way. The tone is, instead, heard as “emphasis.” In positive sentiment override, partners give each other the benefit of the doubt most of the time.
Now let’s see an example of the wife changing the situation:
So either one can stop the “fight about nothing.” Either one can recover from the downward spiral, and put the relationship boat into calmer waters.
In this case, the fight about the veggies is a subtext for a deeper battle that hasn’t been successfully explored and healed. Dr. Gottman calls it a “betrayal,” while Dr. Johnson describes it as an “attachment injury.” It could be a single, damaging event that has left an emotional wound, leaving one or both feeling vulnerable and unsafe. It can come up in the vegetable aisle, in bed, or over dinner.
Dr. Johnson says couples ultimately have only a few key questions that must continuously and implicitly be answered:
When the answer to any of these questions is “no,” supermarket fights like this one become commonplace.
Perhaps in this situation, it was the wife learning that she had high blood pressure and needed to lose weight. The injury was her husband’s response to the news. Each time the issue of “eating right” comes up, she sees it as a “test” of how much he cares about her health.
Or perhaps the husband recalled a difficult incident at work with his boss, where his competence was questioned. His wife, instead of taking his side, seemed to side with his boss, maybe pointing out his need to be “more attentive.” Now, whenever she says anything, he hears it as “challenging his competence.”
An attachment injury destroys the implicit agreement between partners to be there and nurture each other.
Think of it this way: each relationship has a backdrop, a subtext, like the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, that continues to inform our everyday actions. And we don’t forget them, because little things trigger us, and remind us of this hurt.
They call it the “Zeigarnik Effect,” after a Russian psychologist watched waiters in a restaurant:
They never forgot orders that hadn’t been filled. Once the order was filled, they couldn’t remember the order.
Think of it as a “cliffhanger” at the end of a TV series. You remember it, because the drama was never resolved.
Because partners tend to remember negative and unfinished emotional experiences more vividly than positive ones, an attachment injury, or a betrayal tends to leave them stuck.
Gottman uses the famous quote from Faulkner to sum it up:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
“Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship — it is there even if the couple is unaware of it” writes Gottman. Betrayal doesn’t refer only to extramarital affairs. It includes any breach of trust between partners, such as putting career ahead of relationship, ongoing coldness, selfishness, breaking things or violence.
Effective couples therapy does three things in situations like this:
This emotional attunement can help couples resolve “everyday misalignments,” like when one partner is particularly tired or stressed. Enhancing the bonds of friendship can also help transform “negative sentiment override” into “positive sentiment override,” so little hurts can be ignored or reframed.
One private weekend. That’s all it takes to learn new and powerful skills to stop the fighting and get along once again.
Want to learn more? Contact us.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.