Why Couples Fight- The Role of Unconscious Beliefs and Indifference
In an earlier article, I proposed––and demonstrated with a clinical example––that difficulties with reflection impact the way couples communicate (click here to read that article). In the present article, I expand upon this idea and posit that couples often fight because they have unconscious beliefs and indifference that shape their emotions and experiences and lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications. I demonstrate how both these factors play out in everyday events and lead to tension, conflict, and even fighting. Finally, I discuss my approach and technique for addressing these issues in couples therapy, resulting in lasting change and interpersonal harmony.
How do Unconscious Beliefs and Indifference lead to fighting?
Unconscious beliefs are beliefs that are outside of your awareness, meaning you are not able to directly access them through your conscious thoughts and memories. Despite this lack of awareness, these beliefs can influence your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Unconscious beliefs––a concept from psychoanalytic theories––are formed in a number of ways. For instance, they may be the result of early important experiences, particularly those that occur during childhood when the brain is still developing. Because these beliefs reside in your unconscious, they appear to you as inherent “facts” of life. It is not until you bring them to your awareness that you can recognize them as beliefs.
Indifference – A curiosity deficit
Fixed beliefs based on past experiences in important prior relationships take hold and leave little room for doubt or ambiguity. This absolute belief system leads to a deficit in curiosity towards your partner and often results in a state of indifference, leading to misunderstandings. Such indifference produces a couple that is unable to resolve relational conflicts and issues as they become more and more certain of their own perspective and fail to appreciate their partner’s perspective.
The ability to ask questions and seek understanding is necessary for a couple to create shared meaning and to truly understand one another. Whenever one or both partners experience indifference, the relationship is unable to grow and develop. Over time, this results in a scripted quality to a couple’s interactions with predictable outcomes as each partner becomes entrenched in their individual perspective.
What are common responses to Unconscious Beliefs and Indifference?
Unconscious Beliefs and Indifference make it difficult for couples to form a strong and intimate bond. Without this bond, the couple may not feel safe with each other, potentially viewing the other as dangerous or unwelcoming. This feeling of unsafety and insecurity leads to a number of emotional and psychological responses.
One common response is to perceive the source of the danger or discomfort as coming from “without” instead of “within” oneself. At these moments, couples cannot consider that feelings of unsafety and insecurity may be subjective experiences influenced by their past or personal beliefs. For example, negative past experiences with an influential caregiver can generate future perceptions of their partners behaving in similar, unwelcoming ways.
An Example from my Practice
The following is an example of Unconscious Beliefs and Indifference affecting a relationship that I have seen in my work, generated as a composite of many patients to protect their anonymity. In this composite couple's situation, a woman (eight-months pregnant) felt distressed when her partner sent a confusing text message about his desire to go out after work with his colleagues. She responded to his text message with an angry retort, accusing him of making impulsive decisions. He felt judged, became angry, insulted her, and proclaimed that he was misunderstood. This quickly escalated into name calling and veered further and further away from the intent of his original message. They presented to a session angry, defeated, and hopeless that anything could change.
Initially, I was inclined to join the woman in her sense of outrage and explore her partner’s difficulty supporting his wife during the late stage of her pregnancy. I wondered why he was withholding––or unable to give her––such support. However, I made sure to slow the interaction down, carefully going over the text message exchange. By keeping the concepts of Unconscious Beliefs and Indifference in mind, I was able to closely explore the man’s intent and the woman’s response.
How did Unconscious Beliefs contribute?
We discovered that she had the unconscious belief that he was giving up on the relationship and did not care about her or her feelings, and that she needed his support because of her discomfort with the pregnancy. She felt the man was abandoning her. The most striking part of this situation was that there was no ambiguity––she felt certain about his motives without room to consider his intended message. This belief colored her emotional experience and subsequent response to his message. Her unconscious belief was that a husband should be there continuously to support his wife.
As I tried to understand her expectation, it became clear that this unconscious belief started early in life when she felt that her parents had failed her. She felt neglected, dropped, and forgotten by both of her parents. These feelings remained in the deep layers of her mind, relatively unchanged until we had the space to process them together Therefore, her experience in the present session was an extension of this abandonment, which produced her rage. Without an ability to vent this rage at the true source (i.e., her parents), she transferred it to her husband.
How did Indifference contribute?
Upon reflection, it was clear that neither partner intended to clarify the content of the exchange. As mentioned above, fixed beliefs take hold and leave little room for doubt or ambiguity. Couples display an arrogant attitude, characterized by grandiosity and a strong conviction and claim on “the truth” and “facts.” The result of the curiosity deficit, oftentimes, is a fixed view of the partner as rejecting and aggressive. In order to defend against this, personal insecurities and vulnerabilities quickly turn into irrational hatred. This hatred has nothing to do with the partner. Rather, the hatred stems from one’s own vulnerabilities from past hurts and rejections. Instead of confronting and working on these vulnerabilities, it is safer to direct the resultant painful thoughts and feelings at your partner who then responds in kind. The example above illustrates the outcome of these inner workings: attacks, accusations, and name calling. As such, indifference arose from a defensive narcissism.
What does Treatment look like for couples?
In cases similar to the one above, the work would entail helping the couple understand where the emotional responses come from. We would then develop a capacity to clearly distinguish between the past and present. That said, the work would be different for partners who feel unsafe in a relationship due to patterns of harmful behavior or abuse from their present partner. In such cases, the perception that their partner is dangerous or unwelcoming may be an accurate assessment of the situation, and the psychotherapeutic work would shift to address this. I would help this couple assess their communication patterns and emotional reactions. We would examine how each partner communicates, manages conflicts, and expresses emotions. Regardless of circumstance, I may help the couple develop new communication skills, such as effective active listening.
In my role as a couples therapist, I believe it is crucial to help couples recognize that their objective “facts” may actually be subjective beliefs. This approach helps the couple make sense of emotional intensity surrounding conflicts and fights. I often find it helpful to assist the couple in seeing that the distress of a conflict pertains to the impact of a belief and that such beliefs frequently are unconscious and come from their past (e.g., childhood). This work helps the couple see that their current emotional experiences should be questioned and understood from various perspectives. In so doing, couples can work to understand each other's emotions and perspectives and improve their communication and connection. The main goal is to help the couple see how a particular dynamic plays out in the relationship. Ultimately, I want to help the couple communicate better by developing skills to understand and discuss their thoughts and beliefs.
In order to resolve conflicts and improve communication in a relationship, it is important for couples to cultivate a sense of curiosity about each other. This can help them better understand each other's emotions and experiences, and create a more meaningful and intimate connection. In couples counseling, I work with couples to identify and address unconscious beliefs that may cause misunderstandings and conflicts, and to develop the skills and tools needed to communicate more effectively. By fostering a sense of curiosity and openness to learning about each other, couples can create a stronger and more fulfilling relationship.