Nan and Serena feel they have the same argument over and over. For them, it’s about money, but for other couples, it could be about the kids, sex, or household chores. Why? We can think about it on two levels and then hopefully, put it to rest.
Level One: Why This?
What is keeping this conflict alive? Here are several possible sources:
You never come up with a plan to solve the problem.
Nan and Serena have a big fight about money, one of them storms off, maybe one of them sleeps on the couch, or they barely speak to each other for a few days. But gradually, they emotionally defrost, one of them talks about their day, a signal that they both know that the other is less angry. The other reciprocates—a light pat on the back—another signal. Then they both actively makeup—I’m sorry, no, I’m sorry. We’re good. We’re good.
End of story. But the problem is never solved and, as a result, keeps recurring.
You have a plan but don’t follow through.
They both go beyond sorry and sit down and come up with a budget that works for both of them. But in a matter of days or weeks, the plan falls apart. They each fall back into their old patterns; they don’t go back and tweak the plan so that it works.
The problem is fuel for other arguments.
It seems that they both have put the money issue to rest, but now they are arguing about household chores—who is being more responsible, who is doing more. In the middle of it, one of them brings up the money issue of the past. This is not about money, but stacking up evidence to win the argument, as fuel to make their case.
They are pushing each other’s emotional wounds.
While the argument about money seems to be about money, what triggers the argument is each person’s underlying emotional wounds. Nan is sensitive to being micromanaged, and the slightest question—what is this charge on the credit card—sets off his old and deep sensitivity to feeling micromanaged. Similarly, when he gets huffy in response, it triggers Serena’s emotional wound of feeling criticized or dismissed, and she reacts in kind. Around and around they go, but it is no longer about the credit card.
The problem is a garbage can.
Couples and families all-too-easily have topics and arguments about certain topics that become a catch-all for other issues in the relationship. A teen and parent may argue continually about cleaning rooms, but this is not only a recurring problem, but an emotional garbage can for bigger, less articulate issues about expectations, about responsibility, or both feeling ignored and criticized or not appreciated.
The same may happen with Nan and Serena. It’s not about money per se, but about who is responsible, or whose view of reality is running the relationship, or about neglect or power. All these more subtle but important problems get lumped into who spent what.
Level Two: Why Now?
If this happens all the time…
If this is a steady ongoing argument, the underlying sources are those bigger dynamics: the problem hasn’t been really tackled, the solution is never followed through, emotional wounds are constantly being triggered, or it is a garbage can for other underlying problems.
If this comes up occasionally…
This is either about pulling out the stops in an argument to make points and make your case, or it is about stress. Your defenses are down; you’re sensitive, and your head reverts to this old stuff.
What To Do
When you’re not upset, ask Why This, Why Now. If you realize that you both only emotionally mop up but don’t come up with a plan–come up with a plan. If you both agree on a plan but never follow through, track your progress, and if it starts to break down, take action as quickly as possible to get back on track.
If it’s about triggering old wounds, have a separate and sane conversation about the wounds—about being sensitive to micromanaging, or criticism, or feeling unheard and dismissed. Help the other guy understand why this triggers you, but then come up with a separate and balanced plan that takes each other’s wounds and triggers into consideration.
If it’s about fueling arguments, focus on how you can independently de-escalate those arguments. This is in some ways more difficult. You need to learn to realize when you are emotionally ramping up, getting tunnel vision, and starting to stack up evidence to make your point. This is about awareness and skill. Make that your personal goal separate from whatever the topic is—controlling your temper, realizing that the conversation is going nowhere—and developing ways of putting on the brakes.
Finally, if you realize that this is your garbage-can topic, look deeper, and see what other bigger problems are underneath that may be driving it. This is about awareness but also about courage—acknowledging things that have too long been swept under the rug. Have the courage to get them out in the open and out from under the rug, talk about the elephant in the room, and then have a sane conversation about them. If you feel you can’t do it face-to-face, write an email that not only helps the other understand what you think and feel, but proposes a possible solution, and then follow up with a problem-solving conversation.
Additionally, if you’re struggling to sort this all out, consider a stint of counseling to help you get the coaching and support you need.
Maybe it’s time to put these chronic problems to rest. Ready?