15 Mar Conflict in marriage: there’s always a “backstory”

There’s a central truth about relationships and marriages. Couples who know it are already streets ahead in their ability to resolve relationship conflict. It’s a very simple truth, but it’s one that many of us either don’t know, or easily forget, and it’s this: when conflict arises, it’s very rarely one-dimensional. There’s always a “back story” or underlying issue, as the following true story will illustrate.

Jane’s phone was ringing. She knew it would be her mother, calling to check what time they were to meet later that day. But Jane was in meltdown. She and husband Richard had just received their third consecutive negative IVF result, and she knew she was too distraught to pick up that phone.

Richard, on the other hand, was relatively calm (which is not to say that he too wasn’t distraught, but in this moment he was coping better). As her phone continued ringing, Jane figured that making the arrangement with her mother was something Richard could do on their behalf.

“It’s mum – can you please answer it? Just set the time for us to meet her this arvo” she asked Richard through her tears. In response, Richard took the call. However, rather than follow her instruction, he instead explained to Jane’s mum that Jane was busy at that moment however would call back in a minute or two.

Now feeling even more overwhelmed, as well as unheard, frustrated, and angry, Jane exploded… berating Richard for his failure to carry out this simple task! Surely he could see she needed him to take charge?

Richard was bewildered. What was the big deal anyway? Surely Jane could just return the call? Why this massive outburst? Why was his wife acting so crazy over needing to return a simple phone call?

So what’s the back story here, and how is it influencing an argument about a simple phone call? Marriage counsellors sometimes refer to the difference between “content” and “process” level interaction. Let me explain.

Content level interaction is what actually happens. I sometimes explain it as what I would see and hear if I was a fly on the wall: what did he or she do, look like, say, etc? What happened just before that moment? What happened next? These are the facts, the story, the actual words said and things that happened. In this anecdote, it was Jane’s request and Richard’s response, followed by Jane’s angry outburst.

Process level interaction on the other hand, is invisible: if I were a fly on the wall, I wouldn’t see process level things at all. The process level interaction includes the awareness and experiences that happen inside and/or between people as they interact. What was she really feeling, underneath the anger? What was he really feeling, underneath the bewilderment? And likewise, what were each wanting, or needing in that moment? What were their respective underlying (and unmet) needs? This “process” level information is rich fodder for relationship growth.

Marriage counselling is about uncovering underlying information that is pivotal to understanding not merely what happens during this or that specific interaction or event, but more importantly, each partner’s experiences and unmet needs within the relationship itself. An argument between partners is a conduit into deeper conversation that always holds opportunities for relationship intimacy and growth.

Contact Pamela to book an appointment; schedule a complimentary (and confidential) phone assessment; or request more information about fees, services, and relationship workshops on the Sunshine Coast.