As I was running errands the other day, I saw a couple struggling to decide on which detergent to buy. She wanted the more expensive soft one (and she was the one responsible for the laundry), whereas he was ready to get the generic brand. As I overheard their conversation, I was reminded of something specific a professor was talking about in graduate school. The professor was explaining the idea of content versus process, and in that gave an example of how one of his couples spent the entire session arguing about buying a new couch. They went back and forth, raising their voices, debating enthusiastically about which couch to get and why their choice was better.
You’re probably thinking, “wow, a whole session fighting about a stupid couch; what a waste.” But this is an example of the content. The actual subject matter discussed takes some time, usually at the beginning of a session, so that the therapist can understand what took place. It’s really easy to get bogged down in the content of a fight, replaying who said what and all the points that were made. Once you’re able to get to the root of things, it often becomes clear that the emotions and importance put on the argument have little to do with the content. For that couple, the actual issue came down to one partner feeling like an outsider and questioning how to fit into their partner’s preexisting home and life once they were married. Not such a waste of time after all.
What’s more important to understand is the process, which is HOW you argue. It doesn’t matter what the subject, most couples fall into a cycle when they experience conflict. Your therapist will likely focus on trying to understand your process and how you relate to one another. Person A starts with a criticism, person B gets defensive, person A rolls their eyes, person B starts attacking their personality and name calls, person A begins to stonewall and completely shut down, person B gets louder. This could play out a million different ways. The point is, you can insert the content from just about any fight you’ve had, and the process unfolds in the same order.
Start thinking about how your arguments typically go. It takes two people to engage in conflict, so be open to the idea of being honest about both of your actions. Do this exercise without judgment. Don’t think of it as, “I’m doing this wrong, they should have done that.” Simply map out what happens…what is the process? This will be a beginning step in understanding the underlying issues that contribute to fights in your relationship. What’s coming up on the surface is just that, surface level. Let’s take a look at what’s under there so that you can overcome conflict and start healing your relationship.
Remember, it’s never REALLY about the couch.
Post your comments below of what it was like to do this exercise. Do you have a better understanding of your conflict cycle? What thoughts and feelings came up as you worked through this? If you found this helpful and want more information about overcoming conflict in couples therapy, call me at (832) 827-3288 for a free phone consultation.