Tree roots
Therapist Sharon Rivkin believes that most couples endlessly recycle the same basic (and poignant) argument. Get to the root of that, she says, and you'll profoundly alter the way you see yourself and your partner.
"We've been fighting constantly over the dumbest things," the young couple told Sharon Rivkin. They had come for their first session of counseling, and they both looked profoundly embarrassed, like children who'd been sent to the principal's office.

"What do you argue about?" Sharon asked. After more than 20 years as a marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa, California, she's not easily startled.

There was a long pause, and then Clare said, "Well, if you can believe it, the latest was cookies."

"Yes?" Sharon said.

Clare continued: "Our daughter and I baked them the other day. Some were for the family, and some were for Jeremy to take to work. I expressed myself very clearly—but somehow Jeremy managed not to hear me, and he took almost all of the cookies to work. I was furious and hurt."

Jeremy had his own story, of course. He simply wanted to be sure he took enough for everyone in his office. He thought he'd left plenty for the house, and didn't think Clare would mind if he took a few extra to work. He seemed genuinely perplexed that she was so upset about something so minor. "I mean, it was only cookies," he said. Clare, too, seemed surprised by the intensity of her reaction.

Was it "only cookies" that they were arguing about?

Next: Jeremy and Clare get to the source of their conflict.

This question leads to the heart of Sharon's approach to helping partners break out of the painful groove of ongoing conflict. Her method grew out of personal desperation. "I was in my own very stuck relationship," she says, "and I was frustrated that despite all my professional training, nothing seemed to help. Then I had a breakthrough." Sharon's discovery rang true not only for her but, over the years, for scores of her clients: Whatever the current conflict, its root lies in the first argument a couple ever had. In other words, most of us recycle the same argument again and again. Though the surface issues vary, the dynamic remains unchanged.

So after letting Clare and Jeremy fume for a while, Sharon asked, "Do you remember the first disagreement you two ever had?" They did. It was at a party, before they were married, and Clare noticed that another woman was paying a lot of attention to Jeremy. He not only seemed to be enjoying this, but was oblivious to Clare's discomfort. On the way home, when Clare erupted, Jeremy told her that he was just being friendly and that she was "making something out of nothing."

"Does that sound at all familiar?" Sharon asked. "Here's what I'd like you to do for next week's homework. Without getting caught in who-did-what, try to recover the feelings these two arguments—the party and the cookies—stirred up. Then tell me, from your gut, if there's anything similar about those feelings."

Next: At the next visit, Clare makes a breakthrough.

When they returned the next week, Clare told Sharon that despite some initial skepticism, she'd stayed with her feelings and had a significant insight. In both situations, she'd felt unheard and unseen, as though her desires didn't matter.

"Do you remember having similar feelings when you were a child?" Sharon asked.

"It's the story of my life," Clare replied. "I felt invisible as a child. In my family, my opinions were always wrong—or worse, they didn't even matter."

Inside that core of strong feeling, Sharon explained, was Clare's story beneath the story. "What fuels a couple's recurrent conflict is, inevitably, a much deeper wound that's being reactivated. As long as these wounds remain buried, the conflict—in different guises—goes on and on."

As for Jeremy, on both occasions he felt that his innocent friendliness and generosity had been misconstrued. It didn't take much delving to find his story beneath the story. Orphaned at a very young age, Jeremy was raised in foster care. Having never felt he belonged anywhere, he works hard—bestowing his attention, bestowing cookies—to make himself feel accepted by others. Clare's scolding him hooks him right into his own defensive behavior. He makes light of Clare's feelings, and so the cycle continues.

These links to a well of painful memories actually brought great relief to Clare and Jeremy. Now when Clare looked at Jeremy, she could see the little foster boy inside the "inconsiderate husband." When Jeremy looked at Clare, he could see the unheard, unseen girl inside the "controlling wife."

Next: Why this approach works

Changing patterns in a relationship takes time and effort, but those who persist are happily surprised by the rewards: self-knowledge, flexibility, an ability to make better choices and a greatly expanded capacity for intimacy. Eventually, partners can nip the bud of conflict before it grows and start fresh each day.

The benefits can ripple outward, encompassing interactions with family, friends, coworkers and the wider community. As different as these contexts may be, the approach is essentially the same: Retrieve the first instance of conflict, drop to the story beneath the story in order to understand its roots, and disengage from the surface tangle.

"What's wonderful is that with this approach, the poison provides the remedy," Sharon says. "As long as we're willing to discover its source, our recurrent argument will lead us to the very antidote we need. To know this, and to practice it, brings great hope."


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