Often a couple will come in and talk about a fight they're having. The problem usually is, they are talking about the issue but they're also not talking about the issue. Our fights, I mean our repetitive deeply felt fights, are about more than what's on the surface (unloading the dishwasher, helping with the kids, making plans, cleaning the house, sex, in-laws, etc.). The surface issues are really houses for the core issues. They do matter, otherwise you wouldn't be triggered by them, however just talking about the surface issues will never solve the problem.
The Set Up
Issues like wanting the dishwasher unloaded, wanting sex, wanting connection, wanting family, wanting support, wanting to work less or work more activate primary emotions in us (emotions are like colors: there are primary and secondary). Those emotions have a goal they are driving us towards (Dan Seigel says you can think of emotions like, e-motions because they are designed to put us in motion towards our goals). Most often that goal is found in another person. Those goals are best understood in themes: "To be loved" "To feel like an adult" "To feel free" "To feel important" "To feel alive" "To feel safe" "To feel soothed or back to normal".
If those feelings and goals are responded to poorly (unseen/attacked/dismissed/engulfed, etc.) they get connected to a persistent story about ourselves that is written in pain. Usually it's a story that says something like, "I am worthless" or "I am too much" or "I'm weak" or "I'm not good enough" or "I let people down" or "I am a burden" or "nobody wants me". Making it so that when they come up they create a bind: "I want this but I'm not good enough and it's hard not to feel people will see that and once again reject me and I'll be hurt all over again". This feels like a "no-win" situation to our minds. So we try to put away our feelings and their pesky goals. Only, WE CAN'T!
Our feelings, even if we don't register them consciously, are still active and are still pushing us towards their goals. Only we aren't touch with ourselves so we only get the secondary messages like: "I want to shop" or "I want to read a book" or "I want to have sex" or "I want to watch sports" or "I want to do something extremely adventurous" or "I want to look at pornography" or "I want to clean the house right now". These become ways of compensating for the loss of relationally embedded answers to our goals of feeling loved, grown up, free, important, safe, etc. And they are a lot safer than seeking them from other people because they are a lot less prone to reject us.
What Also Happens - A Story
Another thing we do, especially if our hurt comes from early on in life, is we cause problems in order to sustain our defenses. For example, Jane may feel a desire for connection with her husband but she is hyper-alert for any form of rejection since she grew up with an alcoholic father who was abusive and a mother who was dimissive of her feelings. This early rejection left a painful story in Jane that comes up now everytime she longs for the things that got shut down back then. That story is that she is worthless and people will reject her. Even though this story hurts Jane and keeps her lonely it also keeps her safe from rejection. Jane both wants to give up her story and doesn't want to give up her story. The part that does want to give up her story reaches out for her husband, she brings him a cup of coffee and sits down next to him, hoping he'll take the subtle hint to turn to her and engage her warmly. When he remains engrossed in his computer and takes several minutes to look up and respond to his wife her automatic alert system goes off and she feel vulnerable to being rejected. She then, unwittingly and unconsciously, moves into a set of behaviors that will provoke her husband. She starts a fight. This fight eventually causes the husband to reject Jane with some kind of hurtful comment and storm off. Thereby securing for Jane her story that she is indeed worthless and people will indeed reject her. Now, this also takes the husband having his own issues and being willing, again - unsconsciouly, to play into the trap.
We have to understand and get in touch with ourselves in order to be in control of ourselves. Otherwise, pain is driving the bus and pain is a terrible driver. To do this we must:
A) learn what and when we feel primary feelings.
B) learn what goals our various feelings and self states have
C) learn what stories we have linked to our feelings and goals
D) learn what triggers our automatic alert systems to feel and act like the past is happening in the present when it really isn't
E) Most of all we need new relational and emotional experiences that give us different outcomes so that we can write new stories