This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
Marital Fight… Autopsy?
Yes, I mean Autopsy. Let’s assume Dick and Jane had a marital fight which started on February 13th at 1:06 pm. There was the usual Groundhog Day back and forth that resulted in mutual escalation until 5:11, after which Dick and Jane took an hour break, calmed down, had an early dinner, and then engaged in an autopsy of their fight.
Please understand that there is not a single model of couples therapy that uses the phrase “marital fight autopsy.” This is my own perverse distinction.
I like the phrase, however, for one reason. If we are going to acquire skill in having a meta-conversation, let’s first agree that the fight must be dead, even if the issues may be very much alive.
The notion of “discussing” a fight, instead of discussing an issue is a novel one in Couples Therapy.
The biggest danger in discussing a fight is to have the conversation sputter into a “Franken-Fight” where it “rises from the dead” and springs robustly back to life. You want to talk about the fight, not re-engage in it.
Here’s one way to look at it: Image being the audience at a dramatic play. The two people on the stage are mere specks, while you are both sitting on the balcony, looking down.
This is what’s needed for a good fight autopsy.
Marital Fight Meta-Conversation
A meta–conversation is when a couple discusses how their past fights have evolved, paying particular attention to how they treated each other during that heated fight. Meta originally comes from Greek and means “higher” or “above.”
Meta-conversations are a critical skill in marital repair. It’s the best method to process and analyze the fight without re-activating it all over again. It is a skill we teach during our Couples Therapy Intensives, and this skill can be life-changing!
It requires poise, calm, self-regulation, and a degree of emotional distance as you both conversationally hover over the details of the past incident. In other words… an autopsy.
It can also help if each of you have some memory about how your parents or early caretakers (your first teachers on relationships) fought. Are you mimicking one of them? Doing the polar opposite?
The goal of a marital fight autopsy is as ambitious as it is singular; greater mutual understanding.
You must both be willing to discuss exactly how the fight evolved, without reviving it. Make sure you are both calmly committed to the autopsy process in order to increase your chances of success. Timing is also important. You can’t autopsy a fight you’re actively still hot about.
Remember there are two realities.
Perception is everything. Feelings are not facts, but it’s a fact that you both had powerful feelings. Don’t try to find objective reality. It won’t help to “find the bad guy.”
The Five Steps… Gottman Style… From Glove Story to Love Story.
In future posts, I will be discussing how other models of couples therapy approach Marital Fight Autopsies.
The Gottman Method is a particularly thoughtful and useful approach.
- FEELINGS: Simply share how you felt. DO NOT get into why you felt the way you did. You do not have to justify or explain your feelings. Do not comment on your partner’s feelings.
- REALITIES: Describe your “reality.” But appreciate that there are two realities. When your partner describes their reality, ask yourself “what part or parts of this are understandable? Where can I feel some empathy?”
- TRIGGERS: Share where you became triggered during the argument. What memories or family of origin experiences set you up for this reactivity? Discuss your triggers, and how they played into the fight’s escalation. This particular step may be quite difficult. It may require that you approach it after the other steps have been mastered.
- RESPONSIBILITY: How did you contribute to the fight getting out of hand? Can you stop being defensive and enter “Admitting Mode?”
- CONSTRUCTIVE PLANS: Talk specifically about the “little hinges” that swung the door into your partner’s face. Identify one specific thing each of you could do differently next time to get a better outcome.
How to Do the Five Steps Above:
- Share the feelings you had during the marital fight. But keep it simple and free of justification or rationalization. The feelings are sufficient.
- Take turns describing your perceptions. But describe only what YOU heard, saw, and felt.
- Don’t describe what your partner intended, or felt. They will do that for themselves. This is no time for mind-reading or interpretation. Watch out for your tendency to shame, blame, or attack. Be open about what you might have appreciated, but didn’t get from your partner, or what you felt that you might have needed at a critical moment.
- Remember that this particular marital fight is dead. It is now part of your relationship history. Vow to make the next entry into your marital storybook better. Pretend that you’re sitting on a balcony looking down. Use painstakingly objective language. Say “I saw you smirk” not “you smirked.” This leaves room for your partner to correct misunderstandings of intention. Accept corrections with generosity. Recognize that your two realities have clashed.
- Summarize and validate your partner. Speak to them as if they are someone you love. Say something along the lines of “I think it’s understandable that you saw it that way, I can see why you felt dropped by me here.” Too often couples confuse validation or understanding, with a factual agreement. Validation is not agreement. It is the realization that all or at least part of your partner’s experience and behavior makes sense.
- Do you understand each other better? If so, move on to the next step. If not, be curious. Ask: “What am I missing? How can I get your point of view better? Summarize. Validate. “Do I understand you? Is there anything else that I didn’t ask about that you think is important?”
- What were the “little hinges?” What set you off? Explain your intense reactions or sudden hostility.
- As you describe the moments you got more upset, notice if this reaction harkens back to a childhood experience in your family of origin, or some other difficult past relationship. Tell that story to your partner. Connect the reactivity dots.
- Create a detailed map of what Gottman beautifully describes as your partner’s “enduring vulnerabilities.” We all have them, and we all ardently wish to safely entrust them with our intimate partners. Don’t use these vulnerabilities to validate your argument against them. Respect and protect them.
- Remember, the “little hinges” could have swung in a better direction at another time. Discuss your vulnerabilities during the fight. Were you stressed? Defensive? Negative? What can you tell your partner about your state of mind at that time? What can you apologize for? If you are able to accept your partner’s apology, then do so. But if you need something else from them, don’t be shy.
- What can each of you do differently next time this issue comes up? Take turns discussing specifically how you could show up better, especially around your partner’s enduring vulnerabilities. This is an important idea shared with Emotionally-Focused Therapy.
- Learning how to process fights with skill is part perspiration and part aspiration. This work is beautiful, deep, and richly satisfying once mastered.
- Don’t be surprised if after cultivating this skill it brings you closer, more deeply connected, and more protective of one another.