Actor and comedian Denis Leary has a bit in his hilarious 1992 stand-up act No Cure for Cancer where he jokes about developing a revolutionary new form of therapy that involves him curing his patients by angrily telling them to shut the fuck up.
Leary’s kidding. He’s telling absurd jokes to elicit laughter.
And while I use profanity infinitely less often than early-90’s Leary, it occurs to me that I have spent the past several months offering the same advice to coaching clients in slightly more polite ways.
“E=MC squared + STFU.” — Albert Einstein
I didn’t anticipate this going in, but my first full year of working one-on-one with coaching clients covering much of the same territory I’ve been writing about here for the past six years, has been emotionally triggering in surprising ways while listening to clients walk me though their personal stories of relationship conflict.
Their fights look, sound and feel just like my fights.
My male clients tell me things they say and feel. They sound just like things I used to say and feel.
My female clients tell me things they say and feel. They sound just like things my ex-wife used to say and feel.
I spend more time these days thinking about the dynamics of an argument between a man and a woman (typically husband and wife) than I did when I was doing all of the self-work needed to understand how my marriage had fallen apart.
I’ve long called this toxic communication cycle The Same Fight.
Because, no matter the subject matter or triggering incident, the ensuing fight tends to follow the same ugly patterns. It’s just the same fight over and over and over again for years until one or both of them decides to do something different—something positive, healing and reconnecting; or total withdraw which often ends in divorce.
The Same Fight isn’t unique to anyone, but couples often believe they’re the only ones dealing with it because this isn’t the stuff we talk about with our friends or at holiday gatherings. So few of us are aware that every couple who hasn’t mastered the art of healthy communication suffers from this same relationship-damaging pattern.
The sick part is that neither person is trying to hurt the other, nor are they on a personal mission to grenade the relationship or put them on the path to an eventual break-up or divorce.
Relationships have three paths. Two of the paths are shitty.
- A good relationship.
- A bad relationship that lasts forever until one of them dies.
- A bad relationship that ends in a break-up or divorce.
Approximately zero percent of people would intentionally enter a relationship (marriage particularly) believing that it would sour and become unhealthy.
Similarly, almost no one would knowingly behave in ways they understood to harm their partner and damage their relationship to the point of jeopardizing it.
Two people meet. They’re pretty awesome and well intentioned. They love each other. They love each other so much that they decide to forsake all others to be together in a relationship model that the majority of participants understand and intend to be a life-long commitment to one another.
They enter this relationship voluntarily.
And as everyone reading this knows, it fails more than half of the time. (All of the people who get divorced plus all of the miserable people who are still together but wish they weren’t.)
Where the Black Magic Happens
This commonly observed breakdown that’s ending thousands of marriages per day couldn’t be more insidious.
Two articulate, intelligent, good-hearted people who seriously love the other and genuinely desire a lifetime marriage, simply start speaking to one another.
Sharing ideas. Emotions. Beliefs. Opinions.
They tell stories about their day. They explain why they said or did something.
Everyone is usually telling the truth.
They talk on the phone. Via text. At the dinner table. Riding in cars together. Before bed. In the morning before work. Sitting on the sofa watching something together.
And then it happens. The black magic. The barely visible, barely noticeable poison begins to infect them, and gone unchecked, will end their good relationship, sentencing them to divorce or a life-long relationship full of stress, conflict, anxiety and pain.
The Him-and-Her Conversation That Mismanaged, Will End Your Relationship Sooner or Later
Disclaimer: This does not always break down gender lines like this. Same-sex couples experience this too, and I’ve had two male clients that were on the opposite side of this equation. It’s just like this the vast majority of the time. But you already know that.
In its simplest form, The Conversation That Ends Relationships looks like this and has a couple of variants.
Her: I’m going to share something I’m thinking about because sharing what’s in my head and heart is how I connect with others, and there’s no one I want to connect with more than my relationship partner.
“Hey babe. A thing happened and it made me feel bad, so now I’m telling you about it because you’re the person I talk to the most and I wanted to let you know what’s going on with me.”
Him: I’m not 100% in agreement with her interpretation of what happened. I’m going to offer an alternative theory and a solution to the problem so that she doesn’t have to feel bad about what happened.
He explains to her why he disagrees with her assessment of what had occurred, and frequently offers an idea for how she could ‘fix’ the problem.
Her: Why is it that every time I try to connect with my husband/boyfriend, he makes it a point to try to correct my experiences or my feelings? Why does he think I’m stupid? Why does he care so little about me that he rejects my attempts to connect with him in ways that hurt me? Why doesn’t he consider my feelings when he says and does things like this?
“Honey. It really hurts my feelings when I try to share with you things that are bothering me or that scare me, and then you trivialize them and make me feel stupid.”
Him: Oh Jesus. Here we go again. First, she’s dumping her problems on me, which is fine because I’m happy to help. But then when I do my best to offer help, she rejects it and tells me I’m being an asshole who hurts her. I’m so frustrated by this. Why doesn’t she want to solve the problem? And why am I suddenly responsible for her emotions?
His wife or girlfriend is doing what she would do with anyone she loved and felt close to and safe with. She’s sharing things—thoughts, feelings, and experiences—that are reserved only for the most important people in her life.
When he fails to appear concerned about this situation causing her to feel pain, it increases her frustration. It makes everything hurt even more because she’s carrying the bad thing alone even though she’d just tried to recruit the person she loves and is committed to, and who promised to love her always, to help her carry the bad thing too, and he was totally dismissive.
He said she was mistaken about what had actually happened, rendering her emotional reactions invalid.
Or, he said her emotions were out of line with what had happened, because if that same thing had happened to him, there’s no way he’d feel that way or act that way. Therefore, she must be overreacting. She must be being overly dramatic unnecessarily, which is bad for both of them. He doesn’t want her to feel bad, and he doesn’t want to have another problem to deal with that he perceives to be a non-issue.
Him: “Babe, can we please just agree to disagree? I wasn’t trying to upset you. I don’t know what you want me to say. You told me about something that happened. I tried my best to share ideas that might help you because I don’t want you to have to deal with those bad things, and then you turned that into me hurting you.”
Her: “I did not turn anything into you hurting me. I told you—truthfully—that when you say and do things like that, it hurts me. It scares me that whenever I tell you that I’m hurt, you make it about you, and tell me how I’m stupid for thinking and feeling these things I think and feel. How can you think so little of me? Why don’t you love me enough to want to help me not hurt anymore?”
Him: “Right. It’s always my fault. Because nothing I do or have done provides sufficient evidence that I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. It’s awesome how no matter what I do or say, and no matter how many changes I make, you continue to find new things about me that are such a disappointment to you. I’m sorry I’m such a scourge on your life by being faithful to you, and giving everything I have financially and emotionally to you. I gave up my old life to be with you but that wasn’t enough, apparently. In order for you to actually be loved, I need to always agree with everything you think and feel, and never share anything I actually believe since being honest about what I think equates to me not loving you. Got it.”
She feels shitty. Her connection attempt failed, and worse, now she feels pushed away even further by him. She feels rejected and unloved.
He feels shitty. His honest efforts to help his wife were rejected, and moreover, he was reminded once again that she thinks he’s a bad husband and that her life is harder and worse for having married him. He feels rejected and unloved.
He retreats to reset.
His retreat feels like him running away and abandoning her to stew in her pain alone in the dark.
I can’t win, he thinks. Everything I do is the wrong thing. Nothing I do is ever good enough for her.
I’m so alone, she thinks. I married someone who refuses to acknowledge that I’m hurt or help me to not hurt anymore.
The STFU Method for Connecting with Your Partner
My guy clients mostly all ask the same thing: “Matt. I know she’s in pain. And I don’t want her to hurt. But I don’t understand this. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to say or do. It’s like, if I don’t agree with her, I’m hurting her. Which is bullshit. Why am I not allowed to have my own, independent thoughts and feelings?”
I lived exactly that. Exactly.
So I know what he means.
And I know how frustrating it is to see your wife either sad or angry and continuing to withdraw further and further away from the woman you married.
This is how two people—two good, well-intentioned people—accidentally extinguish the love they once shared. This is how two people slowly, incrementally, insidiously add tiny bits of damage to one another repeatedly until there’s so much hurt and resentment piled up after years of it, that the entire relationship comes to a standstill until that pile of hurt is finally dealt with.
“What do I do, Matt? Any time I try to explain my side, I’m accused of being defensive and that I never listen to her. I DO listen to her. I just disagree with her.”
I get that.
Believing that what I was doing was disagreeing with my wife, and being consistently baffled by what I interpreted as my wife demanding I agree with her.
She didn’t need me to agree. And she definitely didn’t need me to try to fix anything for her.
She needed her husband to be one of the people in her life who genuinely cared when she was experiencing pain.
Someone willing to help shoulder the load during life’s difficult moments. Not abandon her to figure it out for herself because “It’s not my problem and you don’t want my help anyway.” You don’t help by offering solutions. You help by demonstrating that it matters to you that she’s hurt.
When someone is in pain and you love them, an appropriate action is to show concern and support. Not scorn, mockery, dismissal or abandonment.
My wife needed her husband to be someone who worked in partnership with her to modify behaviors that would reduce or eliminate hurt.
My wife felt pain, and I was in a position to contribute positively by:
- Showing loving concern and support.
- Mindfully adjusting things I said or did if they could help heal wounds or stop bad things from happening.
But I did neither of those things.
I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. Seriously.
I wasn’t trying to be a shitty husband. I loved the woman intensely.
And that’s how all of my male clients feel too.
They’re trying to be good guys and good husbands, and repeatedly are told that their version of love and support aren’t good enough for her.
They don’t see the pain.
But they must. It’s the only way.
She hurts. And you’re in a position to offer loving emotional support, which is one half, and you’re also in position to literally reduce instances of her being hurt.
It’s easy enough, in theory. It’s just extremely difficult in practice, because you must mindfully stop reacting and responding in the same ways you’ve been doing your entire life.
Her: “This bad thing happened and it hurt me.”
Him: Instead of worrying about whether I agree that something bad happened, and instead of worrying about whether she SHOULD be hurt by that thing, maybe the most loving and supportive thing I can do for her right now, is behave EXACTLY HOW I BEHAVE whenever she feels bad because of something that I do easily recognize and understand.
“I understand why you feel that way. I’m sorry that happened because you didn’t deserve it and I never want you to feel pain. I’m here in whatever way helps the most.”
If the bad thing that happened and is hurting her is being attributed to something he did or didn’t do, the STFU Method primarily entails NOT trying to explain how she misunderstood or misinterpreted or otherwise made some kind of mistake that renders her feelings about it ‘wrong.’
“I understand why you feel that way. I’m sorry that happened because you don’t deserve to feel that. Because I never want you to feel pain, I really want to understand how this happened—whatever I’m missing—because I’m here in whatever way helps the most. Always.”
When the People You Love Ask You for Help
That’s what this is most of the time.
It’s not nagging. It’s not complaining. It’s not criticizing. It’s not picking on anyone.
Usually, it’s someone feeling hurt and vulnerable asking their partner to help them not feel that way anymore.
It’s not ‘wrong,’ to share your honest thoughts and feelings in return.
It just so happens that doing so is statistically correlated with shitty relationships and ugly divorce.
If you’re stuck in this cycle, I implore you to reframe what your partner is doing, and instead of making judgments about whether it’s right or wrong for your partner to feel a certain way, PLEASE accept on faith that they DO feel whatever bad thing they say they’re feeling.
Sad. Embarrassed. Angry. Anxious. Afraid.
And rather than offering all of the reasons why they are incorrect for feeling the way that they feel, either because you interpret the situation differently, or believe that emotion is an overreaction to what’s happening, just love them.
Listen to them. Try hard to understand them. Ask questions if you have to.
Stop making it about you. Make it about them.
Comfort them. Reassure them. Support them.
And if you must, try using Dr. Leary’s radical form of therapy.
Shut the fuck up.