February 24, 2012

in Reactivity, Two of us

We have the bloodiest rows. Fortunately not ever actually bloody but too near for comfort.

I think he starts it; he thinks it’s me. But truly it is a mutual process, because if I am critical of Charles (in a particular – but just what? – way) he goes demented. Though it usually starts with a miserable slow burn.

And the truth is – a row is always two. Therapists have a mad notion that they can relate to their clients in a kind of objective, instrumental way. But the fact is that if someone a) raises your anxiety then b) presses the right buttons (they’ll find them!) then you will, choose what, join in the nasty. It may not be a row; maybe an unpleasant argument, vicious exchange or simply a tight encounter which leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

But rows can be special. You may, like we do, explode about the place, yelling and screaming and being generally shameful and embarrassing. Or one of you may go all calm, helpful and reasonable: without any recognition that this is lethally provocative.  One of you may go all helpless and pathetic, blaming and victimy. Or try to be really ‘helpful’ and understanding. Result? Mayhem.

Many of these are versions of ordinary, sane behaviours – but with a kind of inauthenticity and hookiness that can be very hard to put a finger on. Nasty. It’s a very nasty business, wherever and whenever it happens. And no-one can escape joining in. I’ve tried. I’ve tried everything I can think of.

You have to somehow BOTH make a superhuman effort to stop. And stay stopped. Or someone has to leave until you have both calmed down – this has its own problems: wandering the lanes in the dark, whimpering and wondering how you’ll ever be able to face going home again but not fancying sleeping in a field.

I don’t know any other answers. And I would deeply distrust most advice, since very few people recognise that you are both in there, inevitably stocking the flames and pretty helpless in it.


“In a novel by Margaret Drabble, one character asks tentatively, ‘Do you think I’ve gone too far?’ and another replies, ‘Can you go too far in the right direction?’” Sara Maitland ‘Gardens of Illusion’

some apposite books..?


Paul Steer March 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Anger is a mysterious thing it boils up from seemingly nowhere…and I identify with Charles I don’t always know what it is I am unhappy or angry about, it is usually an atmosphere in the house which is inexplicable, I look at Sue thinking she is annoyed with me and Sue gets annoyed with me for thinking there is something wrong ! Often in my case it stems from insecurity, I think I am underperforming in some way as a husband being the typical unthinking man…I am not sure where this comes from. Although at times I do feel guilty for enjoying life and not thinking about Sue…so perhaps that is the seat of my particular propensity to row. Arrgh should I be saying these things…what will people think ! Oh calm down Paul you are just human.

anne March 4, 2012 at 12:09 am

Yep – they’ll think you’re human…. XXX

Libby March 4, 2012 at 11:27 am

I don’t know if this is helpful, but I have a theory that most problems in life (in fact in the world) stem from FEAR. Even if we’re actually experiencing some other emotion, like anger, what’s behind it is fear of something or other. That could be fear of confrontation, fear of someone’s disapproval, fear of rejection, fear of losing someone, fear of failure… you get the picture.

So, it can help to identify the nature of the fear that’s at the bottom of it and try to confront it and vocalise it.

anne March 4, 2012 at 1:07 pm

true. And (at risk of being a pain) one of the greatest fears is of experiencing anxiety. That can get in the way of us being able to discover the fear..

Libby February 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Firstly, please let me say I am not writing this response out of any sense of smugness or complacency and I’m certainly not being judgemental of anyone’s relationship. I’m just analysing ours and trying to explain why I have the take on things that I do.

We’ve been together nearly eight years and have never had a row or even what I would call a serious argument. We don’t get angry or lose our tempers, don’t shout or stomp about or slam doors, don’t do moodiness or brooding silences, don’t swear at each other, don’t do name calling, don’t criticise each other or put each other down, don’t blame each other and don’t punish each other.

We do have lots of lively discussions on masses of subjects during which we often don’t agree with each other, but they’re fun and stimulating and it never turns into an argument.

So why no rows? I’m not entirely sure. It’s not because we avoid difficult issues or have ‘no-go areas’. (I totally agree that refusing to talk about ‘difficult’ subjects is worse than rowing). And we’re very different people. John is certainly a patient person who isn’t given to mood swings and I’m a lot calmer than I used to be. Also, we’ve both had terrible experiences with partners in the past; mine was being in a physically and mentally abusive relationship, so obviously the fact that John never shouts at me makes me feel very safe and this will have contributed to why I was drawn to him. I think it’s true to say that we both hate confrontations or upsetting each other – the feelings during and after a row are awful. Maybe we’d had enough feelings like that in our lives – whatever the reasons are we have made a conscious and definite choice not to do it. Of course we say and do things that irritate each other – lots of things, and sometimes we voice them but usually in a kind or jokey way. We don’t take each other for granted and always thank each other for efforts made – stupid though it sounds even for something as basic as emptying the kitchen bin! John makes me feel valued, appreciated, loved and, most importantly, good about myself. And I hope I do the same for him. I don’t mean in some sugary, lovey-dovey way, we’re not like that. For instance, it took him a long time to tell me he loved me, but by then I was already certain he did because of his actions. For me, words that aren’t backed up by actions – the right actions – are meaningless.

When one of us does upset the other it’s almost always because one of us is being selfish and inconsiderate. On those occasions, the ‘injured party’ will explain why they are upset and the other will accept responsibility and apologise. If necessary, we’ll then discuss what, if any, behaviour needs to change to avoid the same upset happening again.

I disagree that rows are ‘inevitable’ and I don’t think rowing in and of itself is a good thing – for me personally it would be devastating, exhausting and take a lot of getting over. But I do understand that for some people rows are a safety valve; an outlet and the necessary catalyst for resolving an issue.

anne February 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Thanks for this, too, Libby – and I think it raises yet another aspect of the issues: personality.

I see your John as totally sweet natured and you as generous and easy going. I think that is the clue. I believe some of us are bad (sorry Charles = not you!) and best out of relationships of all kinds. Others of us are more full of anxiety and are more volatile.. and we are the ones with these issues to address.

Libby February 27, 2012 at 6:34 pm

There’s no doubt that John and I are very well suited when it comes to our attitudes to many things, including how to resolve difficulties. So say, as it is for us, rowing just isn’t an option. What then if the deadly ‘not talking about this’ strategies are to be avoided or unvoiced building resentments are to be resolved?

I may be over-simplifying this; but generally it’s our thoughts that lead to our behaviour. Often though that process isn’t consciously recognised; we can go straight from feeling to reaction. The thought process is there, but it all happens so fast or in such a way that we’re not aware of it or choose to ignore it. We can discount what our rational brain is telling us to say, replacing it with, “I can’t say that because it makes me feel vulnerable”, or “it will sound ridiculous/petty/stupid”, “they won’t understand” or “it’s unfair on them” or (often) “it will put me in a bad light”, “will they still love me if they know this about me?” Facing our own demons is really hard. Sharing them and their effect on us with another is even harder. Laying ourselves bare like that is a real emotional risk. One we’re often not prepared to take.

Then there’s the ‘payoff’. Generally we don’t keep on repeating behaviours that don’t have some sort of payoff for us, e.g. a way of being heard or getting something off our chest, or even getting what we want. And what is that? Acceptance? (Including ‘I hate myself, so how can YOU possibly love me?) Reassurance? (Including I’m so scared of losing you!) Understanding? Appreciation? Significance? Value? Vindication/support over an action or decision? Or simply “You really pissed me off when you did/said that and I need you to say sorry!” or “I feel shit and you’re not taking any notice of me!”

You know, writing about this, what it all boils down to is something very simple. We all need and crave unconditional love. The warts and all, come what may, until the day I die stuff. Or at least, until I’m so ga-ga that I couldn’t care less!

anne February 27, 2012 at 6:40 pm

My point would be this: incipient anxiety leads to a desperate attempt to avoid experiencing anxiety. And at that, automatic behaviour kicks in and will be experienced by others generally as attacking. Hence my comment about how inevitable it is that the other person ‘joins in’. But it doesn’t always look like a row. This may fit with your scenario Libby – not sure!

Libby February 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm

So defensive, self-preserving behaviour is… perceived by others as ‘attacking’ – I think I get that. It’s a putting up of barriers to prevent anything worse getting in/being felt – but that ‘perceived attack’ in turn creates anxiety in the other person and so a circle of anxiety & possibly misunderstanding begins?

Helen February 27, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Personally I think rows/arguements call them what you may are unavoidable in any close relationship unless one person is submissive all the time. People are different have different views, different buttons etc etc which is what makes us interesting.

I have a tendency to speak my mind but it normally only comes after a period of being continually irritated or fustrated by something. I dont flare up at every thing that annoys me. However, I know that sometimes the thing that is making me upset or cross is going to be difficult for me to communicate to whoever and I avoid it and then it comes out in a gush of anger and fustration. I am trying to not prejudge the other persons reaction so much and to say what I feel etc before I have reached that tipping point.

I went out with someone once who wouldnt argue or even have a heated discussion. It was quite strange. If we didnt agree on something or if he was cross with me he would just go silent for days (we didnt live together so that wasnt an issue) and thn he would ring up and carry on as though nothing had happened. It was awful it was like having a disapproving parent looking down on you. I asked him why he didnt want to discuss these things and that I thought it was healthier to have a discussion, even if heated, to air things and reach an understanding or compromise – silence followed!!!! The last chap I went out with changed the topic of conversation whenever he didnt like something I was saying – he would just talk across me about something completely different and then the subject he had changed was never allowed to be raised again. After 5 months the list of forbidden subjects was just to big to continue!!!!

Rows and arguements are fine as long as they dont happen all the time and as long as they are resolved amicably. I try to avoid going to bed on a row

anne February 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Yes, I think you’re right Helen – or at least it’s my preference to have things out, and then, in the calm afterwards, resolved. I had one of that going silent kind once – he kept it up for a week once when we were both at home together. I became totally desperate. (and left. for good.)

But/and, as Sue’s comment makes clear, our history will also affect how we deal with difficulties.

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I’m sorry if I pushed this line too far. I can also see that my tone is somewhat acerbic and I apologise for that. There is always a back story….

Anne used the phrases ‘break up the cosiness’ and ‘..rows can be special..’ which rang some familiar alarm bells. Those bells rang loudest to ‘brings us closer’. It seemed to me I was prising at the slightly loosened lid of a can of worms, not coming up with a way-off-the-mark theory.

Let me just say that I grew up with my fingers poised by my ears ready to blot out the shouting and screaming and tiptoed around on eggshells to avoid being the cause. And the protagonists would say cheerfully the next day, ‘Oh it doesn’t do us any harm, it seems to bring us closer…’ I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. It’s just the over-stretched elastic pinging back into a slightly altered shape, at great cost to me and at length, to them.

So yes, I do find it difficult to remain personally dispassionate on the subject of blazing rows as an unavoidable mechanism of resolving problems between couples. Anne says no-one can escape joining in. Truly, you can escape it, if you really want to. And that’s the question…

anne February 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for this, Sue – an generous and illuminating response. And it illustrates what a big topic this is. After all – yes, you (not necessarily you. personally) may be able to avoid a row, but that may also be at some cost. I was brought up in a house where things were dealt with very differently but I’m sure sure necessarily better.

There is more to say here than feels right in a comment – and I am now thinking hard about a proper, full response. XXXXX

I.Kant February 27, 2012 at 11:00 am

Have the two of you ever thought of trying counselling ?

anne February 27, 2012 at 11:32 am

This is a bit depressing. We are good together and happy – and some things are hard or problematic.

That’s the nature of the world, isn’t it?

For some of us, anyway. So some things are worth talking about, for those of us not in seamless bliss…

Babs (dumphimlove) February 25, 2012 at 5:20 pm

I think most couples in healthy relationships argue. I guess the main thing is that they are productive and not destructive. By destructive I mean winning becomes the goal and that anything can be said done to achieve it. In my experience couples often stop listening to each other in a constructive way which then leads to resentment and anger. I did wonder what you and Charles would be doing if you weren’t arguing? What the arguments represent? What the payback is in arguing? Is it replacing passion? I’m not asking for answers they would be for you.

anne February 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm

They are rows not arguments – by which I mean they are not disagreements but an occasional boiling up, out of something going wrong for a while. An essential expression of discovering something is not going right.

Then: there is a lot of noise… then: making up and the problem solving. Sorting out to the best of our ability and goodwill what needs sorting.

The row bit is necessary because that’s when you hear yourself – and the other person – saying, uncensored, what’s wrong. Sometimes it’s the first time you realise.

Thanks for your response – this discussion helps me clarify what it’s all about and what it’s for.

Charles February 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm

I have to admit to being a bit unclear about what the antecedents are to our rows. I agree with Anne- these are not arguments. Arguments for me don’t have the same emotional weight. And actually I think Anne is right- I tend to get us into the row.
It goes something like this for me. I emanate not-OK ness but I am not aware of what I’m not OK about. Anne picks up on this (she generally says that I am “moody” at such times. ). I then notice that she doesn’t seem OK. I come out with something – a complaint usually about Anne- It almost doesn’t matter what I come out with because its usually not the real issue. I am feeling Bad at this point because I know I’m being horrid and I can see that Anne is upset. And I feel inadequate because I don’t really understand what’s bothering me and that makes me feel Bad, too.
Actually Anne gets angry very quickly at such times as she has her own store of Feeling Bad that my complaint – even if it is not valid- is touching into. So we have moved away from any possibility of addressing what the matter is and we are fighting because we both feel Bad in relation to the other.

There is something particular about this Feeling Bad,too. Its as if it has a weight that is touching into the kind of emotion that one usually has in relation to a parent. I don’t know if its inevitable for all intimate relationships to find themselves playing out this kind of process and bringing up such powerful feelings. What I do know is that sometimes I am scared about just how dependent I feel I am on Anne. I feel that my life would completely fall apart if she were not there. I think that sounds like how a child must feel in relation to a parent, no? It may not be “healthy”. But then who knows what is these days?

Bridget February 25, 2012 at 9:44 am

Looking at it from the other direction – what about NOT rowing? This can be silent bleeding, debilitating for at least one party and false consciousness for the other. Think of rowing as the expression of disagreement between persons of strong views and it looks a lot better!
It then becomes a question of perspective – if some members of the RBS board had been willing to have a row with Fred Goodwin, maybe the outcome would have been different and saved us all some cash. Or maybe the rowers would simply have been forced out.
If that is right then a successful row come back to disagreement between equals, forcefully put and the question becomes one of could the disagreement be formulated less painfully? Or would that be less successful?
No-one rows unless they care about the outcome.

anne February 25, 2012 at 9:50 am

True. Although a row is absolutely not a problem solving situation, it does put a big marker on the problem which is needing to be solved. Which is one reason I think they are worth the pain. Especially if you value honesty and closeness rather than lots of no go areas or dead banks? XXXX

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 24, 2012 at 6:23 pm

We used to row, occasionally, but now we almost never do. Somehow we’ve both reached a point of recognition that the rowing itself makes us angrier than we actually ever were and we therefore just upset each other, pointlessly. And we figured out that we only ever really rowed when we’d both had too much to drink, which got us nowhere since the emotional level was always somewhat insincere. So now we both tend to stop before we get there. I don’t know we learned to do that at the much same time, but we did and I’m so glad.

If I still feel I want to say something hours or perhaps days later, then I do. I’m not silenced by not rowing. I truly think that rowing solves next to nothing, and worse, it usually leaves a little bit of scar tissue behind, somewhere.

anne February 24, 2012 at 6:42 pm

I think we’re still usually finding something worth addressing – once we’ve stopped. And it does break up the cosiness and bring us closer. But at a horrible cost. Life not so tidy as we’d like? XXX

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 24, 2012 at 8:14 pm

You’ve answered your own question in the phrase ‘break up the cosiness’. One or both of you enjoys rowing. Maybe you even poke around to make it happen. Well, why not? It relieves boredom, produces a satisfying adrenalin rush, gets the heart pumping and makes you feel like you’ve ‘done’ something. And of course, when conducted by a pair of wordsmiths a good row can acquire a kind of grotesque literary grandeur. What a shame there’s generally no audience around to witness the most eloquent bits.

It’s the only explanation I can conceive of for a couple who have been together a long time, love each other dearly, have a lifetime of professional experience in handling challenging interpersonal situations and who are experts in therapy….

(won’t be offended if you don’t publish this!)

Charles February 27, 2012 at 10:15 am

Sue, I think you are way off the mark here. And there is something unpleasant about this cool interpretation. It actually illustrates very well, though how persecutory interpreting other peoples behaviour is. You know us only slightly, so how do you get to these conclusions about what is going on when we row? “Relieving boredom” ? Where’s that come from. The idea of a row as some kind of performance art, is wonderful but really has nothing to do with Anne and I. It really is hard to understand these rows, I agree. I don’t fully. But doubt yourself if you are faced with something you don’t understand if you come up with a list of improbable explanations. The answer is probably deeper.

Yolanda Elizabet February 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Rows are unavoidable be they bloody or otherwise. I do, however, have a very handy tip on how to seriously decrease the amount of rows with one’s other half. Before we got married my other half to be and I decided which one of us would always get the blame, no matter what. It rains? The other half’s fault! Credit crunch? The other half’s fault. Someone forgot to put the milk back into the fridge? TOH fault. You name it, TOH gets the blame. It saves you so much time on pointless rows on who’s to blame for what, time you are much better off spending with your other half on something that is actually fun for both.

Your friendly neighbourhood therapist
Come and see me sometime, my fees are very reasonable. 😉

anne February 24, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Now, why do I feel there’s a flaw in that suggestion somewhere, Yolanda?? Ummmm…. XXXX

anne February 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Yes! Libby – so well put! Thank you. XXXXX

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