Your relationship needn’t be a warzone, insists Dr Karen Phillip. The relationship and parenting counsellor has been with her partner for almost 20 years. “I can honestly say we have never had an argument. Ever. We’ve had differences of opinion, sure. But when we have those, we stop, we listen – we don’t let things escalate.”
In particular, Dr Philip takes issue with the idea that conflict is a natural part of a passionate relationship.
“When couples come in to see me for counselling, they often say, ‘We’ve been arguing – but then everyone does.’ Well, actually no, everyone doesn’t. We don’t need to. We’ve led to believe that’s how we communicate. But it’s actually not true. We argue when we’re not heard, when we’re not understood, when we’re emotionally escalated.”
The danger is that you can slide into a holding pattern where snapping and sniping becomes a regular habit as a couple. When that gets engrained, Dr Philip says, the damage can become increasingly difficult to undo.
Suddenly feeling chastened/ paranoid / terrified about the fundamental nature of your entire relationship? Join the club. But here, Dr Phillip explains how you can steer your marriage into calmer territory and argue less.
TFH: Nora Ephron once said that “Having a baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage.” From your experience as a relationship counsellor, why is it often so damaging?
Karen Philip: A baby changes most things within a relationship. Before, the parents have time together, they can do what they want, when they want, how they want. Once the baby comes along, suddenly you can’t just go out and socialize. You’re also now incredibly sleep-deprived. In addition, your focus is now on the baby and not on each other anymore. All couples have to settle into all that.
In those first months, the mother’s attention is obviously focused on the baby. So the dads may often feel a little bit ostracised as he generally won’t have that same connection with the baby at first. Also mum may not trust him to do as much as he wants to with the baby. And then he can get upset and then she’ll get upset and it can just start to escalate. That’s often what happens.
TFH: In your new book Communication Harmony, you say that couples can improve the way they interact by paraphrasing what their partner says back to them to make sure they’ve properly understood.
Karen Philip: Yes, that’s so important. Paraphrasing means you repeat what the other person has said back to them using their words. It helps you to check-in that what you think you heard them say is accurate. It can help stop your messages getting mixed up. But it also helps your partner to feel validated. As humans we need to be heard. We need to be understood. We need to be accepted.
Paraphrasing can also help you both to avoid bringing assumptions based on past baggage into the conversation. In this way, you can both avoid conflict.
TFH: You also explain how if you do find yourself in a row with your partner, the way you respond can defuse the situation. If for example, you speak in a slower and calmer manner, the other person often reciprocates even if they’re angry.
Karen Philip: If we’re talking with someone and they’re getting very escalated, our tendency is to also become escalated, because if they’re loud we want to be louder so they can hear us. But what happens is that when we hear loud yelling, our brain actually shuts off. We don’t actually hear what’s being said.
I had a child come in whose parents were going through a divorce and this six year old girl said the most brilliant line. She said, when “mommy and daddy yell, I hear noise. I don’t hear words.” And I thought, that has summed it up so beautifully. And this is what we all do.
TFH: Your body language can also help to defuse things.
Karen Philip: Yes, in the book, I write a lot about reading body language, guiding and leading the person. In a conflict, if you can remain calm and quiet, the angry person can actually start to come down because they’re not getting an escalation of the anger and dispute. It takes two people to argue.
You can combine this with what we call matching and mirroring. So if you’re talking with a person and they’re starting to get agitated, you might start by copying their body language. And then after a few moments, you can start to change your body language. You may uncross your legs, move to the side, lift your hand up or lower it down. And if their body language follows, then you know that you’ve got that connection with them and you can then start taking the conversation and the emotions in a in a different direction.
TFH: On that idea of inflammatory behaviour encouraging more of the same, I read recently that since Trump got elected, Members of the US Congress used swearwords on Twitter 10 times as much in 2019 than they did in 2016. It’s like his behaviour has trickled down to corrupt everyone.
Karen Philip: You’re right. But I also have to reteach a lot of my clients about their responsibility. Often they’ll say, “Well, I retaliated because my partner said this to me.” But I’ll go, “Hang on. You were angry back because you chose to respond in that way regardless of what the other person did. You responded and behaved in the way you chose to.
We’ve grown up in a society these days where we blame anything and everything. We blame the government, we blame each other, we blame the council, we blame the neighbours, we blame everybody. But what we’re missing is to step back and take a little responsibility on the emotion that you’re choosing to place on what a person’s actions. And of course we all have our triggers and some terrible things do go on. But each of us is ultimately responsible for the emotional attachment that we place onto anything.
And if you’ve placed an emotional attachment on something, guess what, you can retake that. You can change that. If you created that attachment, you can uncreate it.
If you don’t like certain behaviours or language sets that you’re using, you do have the ability and the capacity to learn differently and change that. And that’s what this book is all about. We can actually be the person we want to be.
Communication Harmony by Karen Philip is out now