Most of us in long-term relationships dream about (always!) getting what we need from our partner. This is not realistic, but it's one of those infantile longings that just refuses to die. For this reason, couples fight — often.
The distinct ways couples fight, however, reveals whether one, the other, or both are skillfully responding to a current issue or using adaptations wrapped around unhealed old wounds inflicted during formative years by parents, parental figures, and/or other key influential people/factors.
An unhealed old wound is like a ticking bomb; it's the muscle memory of an interrupted inherent right to healthy emotional growth. It is both physiological and psychological in nature and in response as it gets stored in certain parts of the brain and it deregulates body, behavior, and brain chemistry for years to come.
(There is no such thing as only inflicting a physical wound (i.e., smacking) as it can not exclude the psychological side effect which accompanies it.)
Unearthing why you or your partner currently seek relational justice irresponsibly, immaturely, or plain old nastily would:
• Weed you out of the age(s) the wound was inflicted
• Free you to divorce the bad legacy
• Help you be crystal clear about the past vs. the present
• Restore body balance
• End your defensiveness
• Allow you to respond vs. react
• Liberate you to fully love and be loved
• Promote fair and effective arguing
The difference between a response based on an old unhealed wound and a balanced response lies in how intense a response is to the current situation. It's kind of like whether the time fits the crime: “YOU RUINED THE WHOLE NIGHT BY BEING 15 MINUTES LATE TO THE MOVIES!” vs. “Bummer! I hate to miss the first 15 minutes of the movie.”
As a relational therapist, I often get to meet wonderful yet unhealed wounded individuals whom get well on their way to less reactive conversations once they learn these three paradigms:
1. Their (intense) fights are the reaction to at least one brushing the wounded part of the other
2. The style used to manage that trigger is a deep-rooted adaptive move
3. Unconscious wounds are lethal to current relationships
Consider the following scenario:
• Little Johnny grows up being bullied by his mother (huge boundary violation; stuns self-worth).
• He internalizes shame, fear, and anger (emotional responses that block bonding).
• When quiet and out of the way at home (adaptive moves), he isn’t picked on as much by mom. Muscle memory says that closeness is danger, distance is safe.
• When out, little Johnny snaps at teachers, classmates, strangers; fights at the drop of a hat; progressively acts out sexually; is blind to boundaries; and allergic to rules (a cocktail of adaptive moves coveting self-worth and masking inadequacy to secure distance while longing closeness).
Fast-forward to big Johnny now married to big Suzy and longing to be: 1) cherished and accepted (normal psychological intimacy musts), 2) unconditionally loved and accepted (a must from a parent, unrealistic longing from partner that is derived from an old wound), 3) never second-guessed (misread by the muscle memory as a “bully move” and therefore a threat — an old wound).
S: "I am going to the market. Watch our son Billy and PLEASE be careful; last time you got distracted, and he fell on his head!”
(Big Johnny’s muscle memory, filtering wife’s request through an old wound around mother’s boundary violation, activates adaptive moves):
J: “Who does she think she is? I am more than capable of watching our son!” (Toxic shame, feeling less than: immature defensive emotional reaction; actively or passively spewing victim-anger action-response)
Johnny withholds sex for a month, flirts with the waitress two days later, and “forgets” to call the plumber yet again (adaptive moves get activated: creating distance by pulling the “no-sex” card, seeking to restore self-worth through others, avoiding his feelings, being passive aggressive, never direct).
Someone without that childhood wound would just watch Billy more carefully, happily reassure his wife Suzy, and wave her goodbye on her way to the market.
No matter how old you are, an unhealed traumatic wound would boomerang you to the age the wound was inflicted and trauma set in, and your reaction will come from that place. Ever saw yourself or your partner acting boundary-less, uncontained, or mute (all child-like states)?
The reason we become really intense in our fights, either by being aggressive, passive- aggressive, or withdrawing, is our denial to unearth what WE are bringing to the table or plain unawareness that old wounds are luring in the shadows. The move then is to attempt to wrestle our partner to the ground yearning to quash uncomfortable feelings: “Don’t awaken the part of me I can’t manage; it’s your fault if I get annoyed!” Sadly, what this does is shortcut accountability and literally maims us from growing up. The more avoidance or aggression (depending on your own adaptive style of ineffective [dirty] fighting), the closer to the wound and the farther from your partner.
Here are some very common adaptive moves meant to help you uncover if your argument style stems from an unhealed old wound:
• You’d rather walk on hot coals than have yet another conversation with your spouse about something he/she wants from you.
• You don’t argue with your spouse (avoid it at all costs)
• You inevitably feel remorse for your (bad) behavior after each argument
• You consistently interrupt your spouse (speak over him/her)
• You lie often (disguise the truth, omit details, forget to share)
• You get explosive
• You get silent
• You sabotage intimate talks
• You reach for “crutches” (i.e., mind-altering substances)
• You only argue when others are present, never in private
• You use criticism, sarcasm, or misguided humor
• You get "deaf-defensive" (monologue-argue/self-righteous indignation: “I can’t believe you think THAT of me, you jerk!”)
• You use disclaimers before launching direct low blows (“You may not like this, but…” or “To be completely honest with you…”)
• You feel and act victimized (“I can’t catch a break/I never get my way!”)
• You get controlling
To divorce what we do to mask an old wound is hard, not because there is algebra involved, but because it requires letting go of the “I” we are so attached to — no matter how rewarding anybody tells us it may be. Remember that adaptive moves were meant at the time you developed them to help you survive, fit in, get out of harm’s way etc., so you may resist it at first. I suggest you don’t give up on yourself; the results are truly liberating.
If you’d like to divorce your wound(s) and elevate your work and personal relationships, contract with yourself to kick-start it today by tackling these two bold steps:
1) For the next month, take account of your adaptive moves (what your “go-to” is when in distress).
If you don’t know what you do, start a log and write down what a video camera would record. Then, identify the feeling at that time. Look for patterns. Be candid. Don’t edit your responses; you are gifting yourself by being transparent.
You can also ask your partner to be (gently) frank with you and cross-check your own findings.
2) For the next month, ask yourself: “If I can't do (pick an adaptive move), what will I choose instead”? Then do that.
This practice will not only help you snap out of your deep-rooted adaptive moves but will also help you create a bit of brain-space between your first knee-jerk reaction and a thought-out response.
Healing old wounds by replacing your adaptive moves with effective ones may feel like you are changing “who you are.” GOOD — you’re actually accessing a better version of you!
Congratulations on working to reclaim your inherent right to full self-worth, living, and freeing your brain and your heart to full-life-loving.