By: Barbi Pecenco Kolski, MA
A fight often begins because one partner is critical of the other and sends a disapproving message that comes across to the other as an attack.
This article focuses on the different forms of attack that are damaging to relationships. Couples therapist and author Dan Wile describes five levels of attack in his book “After the Fight” that I find to be very useful in my work with couples.
Often people aren’t sure exactly what happens in their communication that leads to an escalation. Fortunately, Wile’s levels make it very clear why this takes place and why it’s so difficult to resolve issues.
A Level 1 Attack – Being Critical of Behavior
Here you are saying that there is something wrong with what your partner does. An example of this is, “You never express your feelings” or “You drink too much” or “The way you act when you’re with your friends drives me nuts.”
When our partner criticizes our behavior, we don’t like it much. Sometimes we may recognize some truth in the criticism, but we often get defensive anyway, due to the way it’s presented: in the form of an attack. It’s often second nature to get defensive when we feel attacked. It’s the rare person who can say, “You’re right, I do act like a jerk when I get around my friends. I’m sorry.” It might be nice if your partner could do this, but it would also be nice for your partner if you could change your critical approach.
You would be better off taking responsibility for your feelings and to stop being critical. Don’t just blame, give your partner information that they can use and tell them what you want. This might sound like, “When you get around your friends, you often ignore me. I feel really disrespected. I’d like to feel more included no matter who you are hanging out with.”
A Level 2 Attack – Being Critical of Your Partner’s Feelings
We do this when we tell our partner how they should or shouldn’t feel or noticing how they feel and implying there is something wrong with it or with them. This can sound like, “You get so upset about every little thing” or “You’re so angry all the time” or “Stop crying” or “Don’t get so mad” or “You’re such an angry person.”
We understandably get upset when our feelings our criticized. We feel how we feel and our feelings are there for a reason. When someone tells us how we should or shouldn’t feel, it can be frustrating and invalidating.
A better option would be for you to notice your partner’s feelings, and instead of implying there is something wrong with them, instead ask why they feel how they feel and just be curious about those feelings and give your partner the space to feel them. Often when our feelings are acknowledged, they transform. When we are told we are bad for having them, we feel even worse.
A Level 3 Attack – Being Critical of Who Your Partner Is/Name Calling
This can sound like, “You’re a jerk” or “You’re a ditz” or “You’re a bitch” or “You are so immature.”
Statements like these go beyond the other attacks because instead of saying something is wrong with your partner’s behavior or feelings, now you are saying there is something wrong with your partner that goes straight to who they are–their character.
The person on the receiving end of an attack like this will most likely get very upset. Such disapproving messages from the person who is supposed to love and support us the most feel really terrible.
Ideally, our relationships are free of name-calling and similar Level 3 attacks. Otherwise, we cannot feel emotionally safe with our partner and intimacy will likely suffer.
A Level 4 Attack – Making Interpretations
This is when you tell your partner that they aren’t mad at you, they are really mad at their parent because of their childhood. Or that they aren’t really mad at you, they are mad at their boss. Or any other number of explanations you come up with to not have to take a look at your contribution to the problem and how your partner’s feelings may be perfectly valid.
While it may be true that your partner did have a bad childhood or a bad day at work, it doesn’t mean that something you are doing isn’t really triggering your partner in the here and now. Even if your partner is carrying around emotional baggage (aren’t we all?), it’s not your place to make interpretations or act as their therapist and psychoanalyze them. Leave that to the professionals. Instead, try to find what’s valid in your partner’s behavior and look at how you are likely contributing to how your partner is feeling and possibly even provoking them.
A Level 5 Attack – Criticizing Your Partner’s Intentions
This is when you decide YOU know why your partner is doing or saying a certain thing better than they do. For example, you may say, “You are saying this because you want us to fight–you enjoy it.” You try to tell your partner what their own reality is, and you ignore them when they tell you that your interpretation is off or unfair.
At the same time, you are also sending the message that their intentions are bad. It can be very frustrating when we try to express ourselves and someone tells us that they know our real intentions better than we do. And even worse, that there is something really wrong with those intentions.
If you do feel that your partner truly has a blind spot when it comes to their emotional baggage and that they are acting out their stuff with you, then you might want to try saying something like, “I’m really confused. I’m wondering if you are feeling this way because it reminds you of something from your past. Perhaps due to the rejection you felt when your dad left?” This is more tentative and sounds like you are curious about your partner’s experience as opposed to outright telling your partner YOU know how they feel and why. Remember that you may be neglecting how your behavior triggers your partner.
Additionally, make sure you are not setting your partner up to be re-wounded in a similar way than they may have experienced in their past. If your partner has trust issues due to being cheated on, don't be secretive with your phone or email and don't cheat! If your partner grew up feeling abandoned, don't threaten the relationship whenever you get frustrated.
Aim to be a healing presence in your partner's life, not someone who is going to hurt them the same way they have already been hurt. We all have sensitivities based on our emotional wounds from the past. It's healing to have a partner who tries to work with us on those and be sensitive to those raw spots (within reason). It's re-wounding to have someone who is constantly treating us in the same damaging way.
If your communication with your partner includes any of these attacks, you most likely have arguments that escalate and don’t get resolved. Your partner is probably defensive all the time and you may not even realize how provocative your attacks have been.
If you and your partner can't find your way out of these negative patterns on your own, find a good marriage and family therapist in your area who can help.
This article was written by Barbi Pecenco Kolski, Marriage & Family Therapist Intern. She specializes in relationship counseling in San Diego, CA. You can find more information at her website www.sdcouplestherapy.com