How Therapists Fight in Real Life

Being a therapist is weird sometimes. I spend my working life meeting with folks, hearing their stories, helping them hear and understand one another better, and cultivating with them relationships that are worth being a part of. And then I come home where I have to navigate my own world and relationships, with a self-imposed expectation that I'm going to get it right the majority of the time. Well, I don't. And I'd wager to say most therapists don't practice what we preach often enough simply because relationships are hard work. However, I recently had an experience with my husband that's worth sharing. 

We've been having the same fight about the same topic for about a year and a half now. Since our daughter was born, we've been struggling to figure out how to redistribute the plethora of newfound responsibilities and at the end of the day feel loved, supported, and equally valued by one another. Basically, we are like every other new parent. A friend recently asked, "Do you always know how to deal with conflict with your husband?" The truth is, often I do. And often I can't muster the resolve or energy to actually do it. It's as if I'm driving a speeding car, knowing I'm going to crash, knowing how bad the crash is going to be, knowing how long it's going to take to recover because I specialize in crash safety, but hitting the gas as the same. "You know it's going to be bad if you keep this up" is the voice I'll hear in my head. "You know if you'd do all the stuff you help couples do in therapy that you'd have a different outcome". 

The fight we recently had lasted from about 11:30am until around 3:00pm. We started off like we usually do. Trying to get our points across, frustrated that we are still having this fight, frustrated that the other doesn't seem to understand what we're saying. We went on like this for about 30 minutes. Then went to separate rooms. We tried again about 15 minutes later. Same thing. And again about an hour later. Same f*cking Thing. My husband is usually very composed, and quite funny. And even in a conflict, he is usually very thoughtful and articulate, sans the humor. I went into the room he was in for the fourth time. Usually, this process ends after the second or third round of fighting with us just deciding we need to go see our therapist. However, the fourth time was why this fight ended differently. I went in and told him that no matter what, I didn't want to be unkind. Something I've said before but usually with the caveat that I really want him to understand my hurt and how I go from hurt to angry, and from angry to sharp. It's true. I don't ever want to be unkind, and yet sometimes I am. 

Here's what happened on the fourth try. I decided to just listen. We weren't getting anywhere with this back and forth. He talked for a while, some sharing how my words impact him and impact his feelings towards me, some processing his own feelings about things separate from me. As he talked, I could sense waves of empathy towards him. I would listen for a few more minutes, and then begin to feel my body get warm all over with impatience and defensiveness. Everything in me wanted to blurt out "BUT WHAT ABOUT MY FEELINGS?!”, “DO YOU NOT SEE HOW YOU CONTRIBUTE TO THIS?!” I would breathe, and then begin to feel empathy again. And then impatience again, and frustration again. 

I needed to get it. And even more importantly, he needed to feel like I really got what he's experiencing. So I listened. I breathed deeply, I looked him in the eyes and tried to imagine what he was experiencing and forced myself to temporarily set aside my deep desire for him to understand my side. He shared for a while, who knows how long it really was, but it felt like a long while. Several times I was hoping he was almost done when he wasn't. But I stayed focused on him, listening and empathizing as much as I could, noticing my frustration and defensiveness but not acting on it. All while noticing his sadness and really trying to attend to it.

What I know about relationships is that we would continue to spin our wheels and grow apart if my singular focus was only on him understanding me. Truthfully, I didn't want to just listen and remain silent while he had the floor. The benefit of being a couples therapist and having knowledge about healthy relationship functioning is in the same way I know when I'm royally screwing things up, I know that even when I'm not feeling empathetic, putting in the relational work of simply listening is more likely to help us make progress. That day, my work in this relationship was to just listen. To push through the frustration, impatience, and momentary indignation and just let him share and try to understand his experience in this relationship. There was nothing else I could do in those moments. He was hurting, and hurt people require empathy and attention and space to share if they're going to start healing. 

And voilà! Everything is better now and we will never fight again... ha, no. 

As lovely as that would be, we're still on our journey of sorting through this particular argument. There's more understanding than there once was, and although we have definitely not mastered how to be partners/lovers and parents, we know each other more deeply and we are figuring out how to make this work a little better for both of us. I knew in my gut that this experience is what progress feels like. Not only did I do the steps to make my husband feel understood, I experienced the happy by-product of actually understanding him and his experience better. And perhaps this deeper understanding of one another is the real end goal of all relational work. We'll have to take turns offering one another this gift of listening without being fully understood countless more times about this fight, and many others. But on this day, we made progress. It was extremely unpleasant for me in the moment but produced the happy outcome of helping us along our journey together. 

I hope this story of our small victory in a smattering of face-plants helps reenergize you to do the essential and often unpleasant relational work that all loving relationships require. I also hope it normalizes what that work can feel like at times, and how many rounds you sometimes have to go with your partner to work through conflict.