How Couples Therapy Works,
as told in a Kitchen Fight
In a brightly lit home, a couple is at a standstill in their kitchen. One is leaning against the doorway while the other stands by the counter, an arm on his hip. The humming of the fridge can be clearly heard. Both seem frozen and afraid of what’s lingering between them as if any wrong move can ignite a catastrophe.
And it all started with the simple question of “Are you cooking tonight?”
For a few months this couple has been struggling with coordinating household chores. One of them is going through stressful restructuring at work, while the other has been caring for a parent in poor health. Both are feeling their long-term personal plans will be set back, but have been too occupied and anxious to mention this to the other. Instead, the division of labour in the home is where the stress of transition is showing up.
What happens in hearing their partner’s question on cooking, one partner (they/them) begins wondering “Is my partner saying that I need to cook tonight?” With this thought, their body remembering a time where they were criticized for not contributing to the housework. This feeling of “not doing enough” has been plaguing them for weeks at their job. It hurts them to feel their partner finds them not enough. They stopped paying attention to their partner and begin thinking about how to defend themselves. Externally they are leaning casually against a doorway, eyes still on their partner, but the internal music of anticipating criticism and defensiveness is blaring. It is all they can hear now, even before their partner has said anything further.
The other partner who posed the question, could see from his partner’s silence and tensing body language that they are upset. This angered him. For weeks he has been feeling like his best care efforts have been met with disapproval from his sick parent. In seeing his partner’s tensing stance to his simple question, the wounded tune of “No one appreciates what I do, and gets upset no matter what I say!” starts playing as he also disconnects from the present, with angry words building in his throat.
The room has not changed at all, and no further words have been exchanged, but here are two people standing with someone they love, now feeling scared, disappointed, and angry in their own home. The tension can go either way now, regardless of whether it escalates or temporarily diffuses. For without actual resolution, a fight can easily be ignited by any questions that trigger each person’s insecurity. These moments where the tension builds before escalation/diffusion are often short, but can feel like a life-time.
And that’s how it feels in session as well.
As a couples therapist, despite not having witnessed the conflict that got clients in my practice, my role is to make alive their conflict process in session. It is being able to see the process in front of me, can I accurately gauge how the couple gets stuck and help them break the stuck cycle.
Just like how certain smells and sights can transport you back into a memory, posing the right questions can bring the couple’s conflict live into the session. By asking the couple to tell me about a fight they’ve had, their own internal tunes about the conflict start playing as they recall the experience, resulting in rising tension in the session. Except this time, instead of waiting in agony for this stretch of time to end, they hear my voice.
“I sense something is happening for the two of you. It feels like you are both tensing up. How about we all take a breath? Then I want to hear from both of you what is happening.” And just like that, these moments that stretch like eternal agony in the home, when there is a watching third party present, flows into an opportunity to gently understand the conflict head on.
One phrase I repeatedly tell couples is when they listen to their partner in session, they must practice not jumping to reaction. This is a critical skill in having conflict-resolving conversations, for it allows space for each party to tell their story in entirety. Furthermore, it allows the listening partner to practice pressing pause on their internal tune, and fully see the conflict from their partner’s point of view.
The magic that happens when someone can hear their partner’s internal dialogue, which is often one of suffering, is they want to comfort them. “I had no idea caring for your mom has been so difficult, that she’s making you feel so unappreciated.” “I didn’t know work has been so stressful and nothing is making sense and you’re scared.” The reality is couples don’t fight because they don’t love each other. But rather, people need to learn the skill of how to truly hear their partner before saying their piece. More often than not, when we hear someone’s pain, we have a tendency to want to alleviate it.
In truly hearing each other’s thoughts and feelings in conflict, this adds nuance and broadening to the story of why this couple fights. We often take it personally when our partner is inattentive or defensive, but knowing these moments are often not because of us, can grant great clarity and relief. “Oh, you mean when you tense up when I asked you about cooking, you didn’t know I was just asking, but thought I was demanding that you cook?” This also allows the other partner to give themselves compassion, and update their internal tune to “It’s not that my partner is unappreciative and upset when I ask about cooking, but rather, they are going through something and are very sensitive to criticism right now. It is not me, it’s just he’s having a hard time.” This can be very freeing to both partners.
In realizing their partner’s suffering originated because of the upheaval in their lives, the couple now has a greater perspective on why they have been fighting. In the context of their relationship, they are experiencing a moment of loss and delaying of their original life plans. And that their fights about housework, is just the signal that tasks in the home, like their long-term plans, need to be reviewed and renegotiated to fit the current state of their lives.
When this couple learns that conflict can be understood as a sign that transition is happening and they have the skills to resolve it, it builds their confidence to navigate disagreements. This provides motivation to keep using the skill of listening to each other and being kind to each other in their life, even without their therapist present.
In growing their confidence in conflict resolution, the couple finds that tension in the home becomes increasingly easier to navigate. If the question of “Are you cooking tonight?” comes up, the partner struggling at work can pause to understand the question before responding, such as asking a clarifying question. “Are you asking me to cook tonight? Or you just wondering what we’re having for dinner?” Even if the tension does rise, both parties can be mindful and say “Hey, are we getting tense again? Remember Jenny said we gotta go slow, can we just hold on for a second?” The hopeful thing about this approach is instead of these conversations become an unruly catastrophe by any “wrong moves”, the couple now have multiple points to halt the fight train. Even if the partner with the sick parent gets angry, he can also just name it and say “I am starting to feel you are mad at me again and don’t like what I am offering. Is that what is happening? Are you mad at me?”
In being able to truly hear from their partner and getting clear answers, the couple can grow confidence in their relationship. In being able to bring connection, resolution, and understanding into their daily lives, it brings comfort and stability at home. They know despite life is throwing big transitions at them, they have control and mastery over their partnership. This in term actually strengthens the couple’s resilience to navigate these life transitions, since they are now better supported by each other.
This is how I hope to serve my clients. That these tense and confusing fights at home that their friends and family find trivial, are actually significant in the context of their partnership. Moreover, conflicts are not to be feared, but as a way to build connection and deepen their relationship.
You deserve to see and understand the big and small picture of your relationship and feel hopeful even if life is stressful. You deserve to have help to help your partnership endure transitions and grow stronger in the process. It is possible, and I would love to help you make it happen.