Two Attitudinal Stances When Approaching Conflictual Conversations

In the landscape of conflict within relationships, two distinct attitudes often emerge when navigating difficult conversations. Termed as “The Two Babies,” these attitudes encapsulate the stark contrast between an approach open to growth and change and another steeped in defensiveness and antagonism.

When we’re working with a couple in an intensive couples therapy weekend, we sometimes need a quick way to convey a sense of contrast between a stance toward their partner that is open to the possibility of change and growth, and one that is closed. One of the ways we do this is a handout we created called the “two babies.”

What is the Hell This?

“What the hell is this?”  This is an attitude that is often based on fear and anxiety. The stance is typically defensive, or antagonistic.

With this attitude, partners don’t really listen to their mates. They typically just wait for them to finish so they can then make their point.

They look for “holes” in their spouse’s point of view that they can exploit. Their goal is nothing more than a devastating rebuttal.

Complexity and nuance are unwelcome concepts. They don’t expect any new or interesting information to come out of the discussion, so it usually doesn’t.

They have an “I’m right, and you’re wrong” attitude.  Sometimes they have a more contemptuous “I’m right, and you’re an idiot” belligerence about them. If marriage is a team sport, they are on opposing sides, looking for ways to get the upper hand, claim the moral high ground, or exploit any signs of weakness or hesitancy in their partner.

What’s This?

In contrast, the “what’s this?” stance is one of genuine curiosity. The goal is to be curious instead of furious. A partner in a “what’s this” mindset is open to new information.

They genuinely want to know and understand what their partner thinks. They are not threatened by thoughts that differ from their beliefs.

Because they are open to new information, they are open to the possibility that they were wrong.

They care about the outcome, and how they are coming across. They make repair attempts when the conversation turns negative. They speak to their partner with love and respect.

They can acknowledge differences in perspective without feeling threatened by them.

It’s also important to emphasize that those who hold a “what’s this?” mindset are less likely to be “infected” by the distress of their partners. Because they have less to hold on to, they can more easily let ideas and beliefs go when they are clearly inaccurate or found to be outdated.

They pursue knowledge and understanding to gain victory and dominance. But once they are in possession of the facts, they can also firmly take a position that feels right for them, while remaining sensitive to, but not responsible for, the distress of their partner.

In Closing

In essence, these attitudes—dubbed “What’s This?” and “What the Hell Is This?”—serve as beacons in the storm of conflict. While one leans into curiosity and a willingness to understand, the other is entrenched in a defensive stance, seeking victory rather than resolution. Understanding and embodying the former mindset foster an environment of mutual respect, growth, and openness within relationships, steering away from the pitfalls of contention and hostility that characterize the latter.