Jules and Sue came into marriage counseling, clueless as to why there was so much pain and suffering in their relationship. After listening to each of them describe their situation, it became obvious what the problem was: Neither of them could say anything about the other without having their statements laced with harsh judgments and negative criticism. They were both brought up in families where such communication was practiced on an ongoing basis; neither of them had any idea that it was even possible to respond to hurtful or condemning words with anything other than a counterattack or defensiveness. Nearly every conversation, whether it involved a restaurant choice or a possible vacation, inevitably deteriorated into a frenzy of reactive listening, name-calling and judgments that left them both feeling wounded and resentful.
Destructive cycles of reactive listening inevitably result in prolonged suffering, and often in divorce, if the pattern is not interrupted. The constant wear and tear on the fabric of the relationship erodes the goodwill that was once present in the relationship and threatens not only the integrity of the partnership, but the health and well-being of each partner. The stress that they experience is not only emotionally damaging to each of them, but physically damaging as well. It is not an exaggeration to describe the participants in such ongoing interactions as victims of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They each, however, are perpetrators as well as victims in this cycle. They will continue to be until they take responsibility for interrupting their own reactivity, rather than focusing on what their partner is doing that makes them feel defensive.