Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD, LMHC

Psychotherapy, Sex Therapy, Couple's Counseling, Addictions Counseling, Psychological & Psychosexual Assessment and Polygraph Testing


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Patrick B. McGinnis, LMHC


In the last issue, we explored the need for safety in our relationships. Safety is a crucial component if we want to actually resolve reoccurring conflicts. Without a structure that offers safety, many couples simply keep rehearsing the same problematic communication patterns and nothing gets resolved. Over time, we find that we keep having the same arguments.


Commonly, one person in a disagreement is trying to sway the other to his/her point of view. He/she may employ any number of tactics: repetition, power-plays, manipulation, etc. There is no communication if a message is sent but not received. Typically, other person is not really listening during a disagreement. He/she may be thinking about their own response and waiting for the chance to break in and express it; or he/she may be so caught up in emotion that they are incapable of following the other personís verbalizations with clarity. In either case, communication is not happening because neither person is listening to the other.


Another dynamic is also present between most couples. Imagine that there are two kinds of people in every couple relationship. A turtle and a thunderstorm. The thunderstorm wants to be heard during a disagreement, and being a thunderstorm they do what thunderstorms do best-use a great deal of energy storming. Turtles are more timid beasts; they too want to be heard during a disagreement, but emerging from the turtleís shell during a thunderstorm is not safe. The turtle buttons up safely inside its shell until the thunder passes. This can frustrate the thunderstorm because it wants the turtle to come out and engage with it. Unfortunately, thunderstorms do not know how to entice turtles out of their shells, so they can only do what they know how to do-thunder and storm. Turtles know they have no power to control thunderstorms so they usually do not even try-they just stay in their shells. A cycle quickly emerges.


So what if there are two thunderstorms in a relationship-or two turtles? The answer is simple, during a particular disagreement, one of them simply takes on the other role for that conflict-this may happen at the beginning of the disagreement or at anytime during it.


Remember when we talked about the three common reactions to threats? Obviously, the turtle is reacting through fleeing or playing dead. People often overlook the thunderstormís pain, they are reacting out of fear too. Their fear comes out as anger. Neither the turtle nor the thunderstorm feels safe. So how can people who do not feel safe learn to deal with disagreements?


They agree that there will be no spontaneous dumping of frustrations. If one partner is upset they ask if the other is available (physically, mentally and emotionally) to dialogue about an issue. If the partner is unavailable (for a legitimate reason) they make an appointment to discuss the issue as soon as possible (usually within 24 hours)-and they must be the one to bring it up. Couples who keep this agreement can relax and let down their guard. They know that they are safe unless their partner is expressing a need to talk about a frustration or irritation.


Couples also agree that there will be no tissue damage and no use of escalating language. If things escalate too far, or if there is a history of violence a Time-Out will be used to calm down before dialoguing.


Couples need to learn a structured way to communicate frustrations and anger. Structure and the preceding agreements (if followed consistently) foster safety and mutual trust. Structure ensures that both people are safe, heard, and very importantly, understood. Simply hearing and understanding another personís point of view is often sufficient to resolve many conflicts. I have found that many couples actually agree with each otherís point of view-they just havenít really heard it.


An example of a structured dialogue can be found in this issue headed: The Coupleís Dialogue.


More advanced tools will be discussed in later issues.


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Copyright © 2000 Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD. All rights reserved.
Revised: 01/09/09.

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