Managing Relationship Conflict - "It's not about the watch!"

Managing Relationship Conflict

Often, the things we fight about, have nothing to do with the things that we’re really fighting about. In other words, “It’s not about the watch!”

What could I possibly mean by what I just said?

A highly conflicted couple who have been married for many years come in to my office – let’s call them Tom and Mary (names changed)  Tom is a collector of expensive watches. In the session, Mary criticizes Tom for spending more money on yet another watch. So the argument that ensues is about…guess what? The watch! So, when I suggest to this couple that the argument ISN’T about the watch, what I suggest is the following:

Oftentimes “the thing” we are arguing about doesn’t have anything to do with what what’s really wrong. Rather, the “thing” we choose to argue about triggers a long-held pattern between the two of us that is full of all kinds of negative messaging to ourselves and to each other….THAT’s what’s really wrong.

Let’s talk more about Tom and Mary to help you understand this more.

In the lives of this couple, Mary managed the finances. She had recently noticed that Tom had purchased a new watch for his collection. In the session in my office, she mentioned this to him. Tom immediately got defensive; after a while she shut down.

When I drilled this situation down with them, it went something like this:

Mary discovers Tom’s watch, and it immediately causes her to think “here he goes again, he never listens to me” or in other words, she FEELS unheard. She then RESPONDS to Tom with her criticism. Tom hears the criticism, and he FEELS disenfranchised, as if Mary were stripping away his identity by criticizing what is important to him. So he RESPONDS defensively – which makes sense since he feels he need s to  defend his very identity. But what Mary SEES is his defensiveness and anger, which in turn makes her FEEL like her concerns don’t matter, or that she is unimportant to her husband. So in turn, she RESPONDS by shutting down; withdrawing. When she shuts down and withdraws from Tom it makes him FEEL that she doesn’t care a bit about him or his needs….etcetera, etcetera.

Do you now see how “it’s not about the watch?”

I’ll give you another example of a couple I worked with, let’s called them Don and Suzie. This one might be called: “it’s not about the to-do list”.  Don and Suzie have been married for over 20 years. When they met, Suzie was pretty young and in fact she is quite younger than Don. And Suzie had experienced a lot of trauma throughout her life. So for these reasons Don assumed the role of Suzie’s “Protector”, which actually seemed to work for them in this marriage …until it started not to anymore.

So, here they are in my office, and they are bringing up an argument they had the night before. Don had come home from work and he had asked Suzie if she had completed the to-do list, she responded she had not. Don jumped down her throat, Suzie became visibly upset, neither could recover in the moment, and so the argument ended – badly.

When I drilled this situation down with them, it went something like this:

Don, as “Protector”, wants to make sure everything at home is done, really out of the best of intentions so that the house runs smoothly. Out of genuine concern he asks Suzie about the to-do list. So when Suzie says “no, it hasn’t been done”  it makes him FEEL anxious as if the security of the household is threatened. So he RESPONDS with a voice that is both raised –and critical-sounding – more out of a sense of perceived fear than anything else. In turn Suzie FEELS like she is an idiot, like she can never do anything right….which is a recurring negative belief that she carries about herself This makes her FEEL helpless and out of control. In turn she RESPONDS to Don by yelling at him. When she yells at him, it makes Don FEEL insulted and disrespected. When Don FEELS insulted and disrespected, he RESPONDS by shutting down. When he shuts down, it makes Suzie FEEL abandoned and unsafe. When she FEELS this way she responds to Don by clinging to him……….

This leads to the second point I ‘d like to share with you:

1.     There is, between all couples, a rewarding, energizing cycle, and a de-energizing, problematic cycle. It is this problematic cycle that we want to work on. Sometimes  this cycle is referred to as “the dance” between partners. DON take this step, SUZIE take that step. The dance is repeated, time and time again, in much the same pattern. much so that it becomes perfected over years of practice.

 WE are going to call this dance  “The Crazy Cycle”!  The Crazy Cycle is the pattern that two people, in intimate relationship, fall into when conflict arises. It doesn’t matter what we are fighting about( it’s not about the watch)  – the way we feel and the way we respond to each other is pretty consistent from one event to another. For example, in the above example with Suzie and Don, or with Tom and Mary – no matter what they are fighting about, they probably always respond in the same way.


So, what about you? How would it help you to understand your own crazy cycle?


Once you understand how you trigger each other,how it makes you FEEL and you typically RESPOND to each other WHEN triggered, you will be able to identify that you are getting into this Crazy Cycle, and you can start working with each other on reversing the momentum of this cycle.  


If you would like to explore your own “Crazy Cycle” contact me and we will not only drill it down together, we will also work on reversing this cycle and reducing the conflict in your relationship!