Young Couple Seated Back To Back

Unpacking Dreams and Feelings, in Order to Turn Toward your Partner: Two Significant Ways to Stay Connected when Arguing

By. Kevin D Arnold, PhD, ABPP – Executive Director, The Centers for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy, Inc.

Many couples fear that arguing will lead to dissatisfaction with their relationship.  Couples believe they face possible break-ups or divorce if they express unhappiness, fears or disappointment.

Unfortunately, when partners avoid expressing their negative emotions, two negatives become more likely.  One, they become more isolated in their needs for the other person to soothe them and provide nurturance.  Two, each partner ends up knowing less about the other, rather than more. 

Along with anxiety about expressing unmet needs, partners also feel the discomfort of emotional distress.  Sometimes the discomfort experienced along with negative feelings (e.g., depression, anxiety) looms as large, or larger, than the negative feelings themselves.  Avoiding one’s partner serves to both decrease the fear of expressing unmet needs and decrease the discomfort of feeling anxiety.

The emotionally driven behavior of avoidance takes hold far too often, leading to emotional distance in the misguided service of staying together.  Relationships seldom survive isolation, and instead often fall apart because of the combination of fears of expressing unmet needs, the discomfort over the anxiety and the weight of loneliness and isolation. 

Couples inadvertently end up in what is sometimes called the land where love goes to die.

Couples can overcome the isolation and emotionally driven avoidance if they combine two strategies: a) furnishing the cognitive room of their partner with the right furniture and b) turning toward their partner to overcome the emotionally driven avoidance and resulting isolation.

Each partner in a relationship has a “room” in their head that is the space given cognitively to the other person.  This room exists to hold what is known and understood about their partner.  In a sound marital house (a term used by John Gottman to describe the architecture of relationships) thrives when the room has the most reality-based furniture in it.  Arguments serve to open up the door to that room and permit partners to move around and add furniture about our partner.  Partners are best served to listen empathically to each other and listen for the dreams each has underneath the pain and fears expressed when upset. We learn about each other best when we actively unpack the other person’s inner world.

But partners also need to pull up their furniture trucks to the door of the sound marital house and deliver their furniture. This process is sometimes call turning toward the other person.  The person talking about their inner world and fears turns toward their partner, overcomes the emotionally driven avoidance, and speaks about their negative feelings while expressing their disappointed dreams for the relationship.  While one person unpacks the truck, the other backs up their furniture truck toward the door to their room in the other person’s mind.  Sharing one’s dreams and disappointments helps their partner to know them better and nurture their needs more completely.

So often couples can overcome their isolation through unpacking and turning toward each other.  Their loneliness reduces and a sense of connection increases.  Love no longer goes off to die, but instead it flourishes in the house the couple builds every day to sustain their relationship.  They build a relationship house that can withstand any hurricane.

– Gottman, J.M. (1999).  The Marriage Clinic.  New York: WW Norton & Company.