From Duel to Duet

Relationships, Therapeutic Method
Moving from conflict to harmony in a relationship.  Learn how create emotional support in what was a verbal war zone.

Moving from conflict to harmony in a relationship. Learn how create emotional support in what was a verbal war zone.

We’ve come a long way in our approach to resolving differences between partners in couple relationships. For example, it was not until the 16th century that judicial marital duels began to die out, within Germanic culture. Here is one set of instructions for such a brutal duel:

The man should be armed with three wooden clubs. He was to be up to his waist in a three-foot wide hole dug in the ground, with one hand tied behind his back. The woman was to be armed with three rocks, each weighing between one and five pounds, and each one wrapped in cloth in form of a small sack. The man could not leave his hole but the woman was free to run around the edge of the pit. If the man touched the edge of the pit with either his hand or his arm, he had to surrender one of his clubs to the judges. If the woman hit him with a rock while he was doing so, she forfeited one of her stones. … If the woman won, the man was executed; if the man won, the woman was buried alive.

But time and time again in our counselling practice we see couples that are exhausting themselves in verbal versions of these brutal duels, trying to cut the other down with attacking words. It’s true to say we’ve evolved in relationships – but maybe not far enough. So it’s interesting to wonder what the next stage is in the evolution of the resolution of couple differences.

The view from recent neuropsychology is, in a word: emotion. Here is what Sue Johnston, a well-known exponent of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) has to say:

We are now at a point where emotion – the apparently crazy, irresponsible sleazebag of the psyche – has been identified as an inherently organizing force, essential to survival and the foundation of key elements of civilized society, such as moral judgment and empathy. Emotion shapes and organizes our experience and our connection to others. It readies us for actions; it is the great motivator. As the Latin word for emotion, emovere (move, displace) suggests, it literally moves us to approach, to avoid, to act.

(From Singing in the marrow bone: Harnessing the power of emotion in couple therapy, Susan Johnson, Psychotherapy in Australia, vol. 19 no. 3, May 2013.)

There are differences in opinion amongst experts on what the basic emotions actually are, but they’re often given as the following: anger, sadness, joy, surprise, shame and fear. Of course all of these states begin as internal to us; but, soon after their arising, they become external in our display of the emotion. It’s unlikely that emotion can stay hidden – the energy wants to move. What we want to do in therapy is raise awareness and harness this emotion, this power for change and growth.

In an intimate relationship, it’s the external show of emotion that causes a reaction in our partner – often almost instantaneous, outside of our control, and possibly even unnoticed to ourselves. It’s usually the old part of the brain (the amygdala) that’s reacting, a primitive reaction of fight, flight or freeze. This reaction feels negative and starts a chain reaction – often an argument.

An example:

Joe is quite private about his business affairs, and Sarah finds this difficult. Sarah picks her time and tries to ask Joe about how the business is going. Joe hears her questioning as “strong” and “annoying” and feels that Sarah is not trusting him to run the business correctly. He’s hurt and quickly (though subtly) withdraws from the conversation. Sarah of course, picks up on this and thinks “this is what he always does and I’m tired of it”. She can feel her anger rising. Joe detects her anger immediately, and now he feels attacked and undermined in his ability to run the business effectively. He unleashes a tirade of abuse and leaves the room. Sarah is mortified. She feels disrespected, humiliated, misunderstood – and lashes out even more strongly. Joe leaves the house angrily and doesn’t return for hours. During that time, Sarah feels abandoned and becomes depressed. It takes them a long time to recover, but they don’t resolve the conflict. So when it comes up again the feelings are heightened.

What just happened is a “an emotional duel”, a fast-acting, painful system of attack and response that is played out on the edges of conscious thinking. It’s debilitating and hurtful, and while it doesn’t cause physical loss of limb (or life), as in the 16th century marital duel, it’s a not that far advanced. Each are trying to cut the other person down and stop the attack while still looking for the soft spot in the other person to hurt. These sort of interactions can’t have a positive result.

What we do in counselling is pick apart such an interaction, trying to get to the “micro” level of what’s happening for each in the duel: even down to the increases in heart rate, the body tensions, the ideas and meanings that each partner is quickly and repeatedly attributing to the other in the interaction, that fuel the emotions and subsequent responses of the other. By accessing the underlying emotions, we can know when we are on track with this work. Emotions show us where the energy is. Usually we get stuck in the content of the augment and lose the real reason we are fighting. This is a benefit in therapy – staying with the real issue until getting to an understanding or resolution.

Sometimes a couple will bring with them to therapy an example of such an argument; other times an emotional duel will show itself while the couple is in the therapy room. Given that both partners in the couple want to understand the duel, and given that they are both prepared to step aside from blame, it’s usually inevitable that an understanding of what’s really happening will reveal itself. And understanding what’s happening can sometimes be enough to shift the duel into a “duet”. It can take only a small shift to change significantly a complex, emotion-based system.

The idea is that in a duet one can see that each has a part to play – a part in the song or dance (the dynamic of the couple). Once that duet, be it positive or negative, is seen and understood it can be rearranged and new ways of being, communicating and understanding each other can take the place of the old ways that cause pain.

Learning about how your own couple duels and duets play out can be a powerful tool for change. If you would like find out more feel free to contact us.