It was a really hot summer’s day when Brian came in from the back garden. He had been working hard to try and finish levelling the patio. As he walked into the kitchen, Amy burst out, “What are we going to do with this sink? It’s been leaking for over a week now!” Brian was angry and retorted, “We!? You mean ‘what am I going to do about it?’ You just line things up for me to do and then stand over me to make sure I do it how you want me to.” Amy shot back, “Well, we can’t just leave it. I’ve put a bucket under it and it’s me that pours the water away. You just ignore it.” “I don’t ignore it,” replied Brian. “I’ve been busy finishing off the patio. You could ring a plumber!” “A plumber!” exploded Amy. “And how much do you think that would cost. You could do it in half an hour if you put your mind to it.” “And the rest, when you’ve stood over me and found ten other things under there,” replied Brian and he walked out slamming the door.
We wrote this conversation a couple of years ago and two friends made a short video of it. We have used it many times and on every single occasion all the couples there recognised that they have had a conversation like that.
On the surface it’s about a leaking sink. What is much more important is what is going on that is under the surface. So let’s have a look beneath the surface.
Amy has noticed a problem with the leaking sink. She cannot fix it herself. Her recent experience has been that Brian has been reluctant to help in these circumstances, saying that he has too much on. She feels anxious. She fears rejection and the connection between her and Brian feels shaky. She needs support from Brian. She is unable to ask for that support directly, because that would leave her too vulnerable. So she goes into self-preservation mode and comes across fairly aggressively.
Brian, on hearing Amy’s demand that he fix the leaking sink, feels really anxious. He, too, feels threatened and his emotional alarm bells begin to ring. What has happened in the past tells him that however he does the job Amy will either criticise the way he has done it or stand over him to make sure he does it ‘properly’. He really needs some affirmation. But his fear is that he will never, ever be quite good enough, that he will never quite get it right. But, because he feels under Brian is not prepared to reveal his vulnerability so he, too, goes into self-preservation mode and reacts angrily judging that he is being attacked.
Amy then pleads for support by saying what she has done and expressing her contribution but then attacks Brian by pointing out the contrast between her action and him ignoring the problem, thus not supporting her need. Her angry reply to Brian’s response confirms her judgement that Brian doesn’t really care, but she hides her real anxiety.
This response confirms Brian’s judgment that he is under attack and he demonstrates his previous contribution fairly forcibly. Again he expresses his anger but hides his real fear.
When Amy attacks again, they go once more round the cycle and then Brian withdraws, leaving them both, angry, hurt and isolated.
All couples from time to time get into this sort of negative cycle. When they get into it generally one is more concerned about feeling lonely and isolated, we can call them the pursuer, and one is more anxious about being overwhelmed. We can call them the withdrawer. More often than not it is the woman who pursues and the man withdraws.
How might Amy and Brian or any other couple have avoided a row like this? When a couple meets an issue that they find difficult to talk about, they become anxious. But instead of working to keep connected very often they go into self-preservation mode. In self-preservation mode they either attack or retreat. In our case, Amy attacks. Initially Brian attacks back but soon retreats. They express their views in very angry tones. The effect of this is to drive them apart. Of course, when Brian retreats he cuts off all communication.
The row between Amy and Brian could have been avoided if they both could have expressed how they initially felt and gave due appreciation to the other’s position. So if Amy had first showed how much she valued what Brian was doing and then said that she was anxious about the sink and needed help, the response may well have been different. If Brian had been able to say how anxious he was about trying to deal with the sink and then acknowledged Amy’s concern, they might have found a better way. They certainly would not have ended up feeling lonely and hurt.
The expression of soft feelings, like disappointment and anxiety, without blaming the other person tends to draw couples together. Angry expression or acting out angry feelings tends to drive couples apart.