See Dick. See Jane . See Dick and Jane fight.
Jane tilted her head to the side, her eyes widened, the muscles in her jaw tightened forcing her upper and lower lips into a very small shared space on her face. She couldn’t contain it anymore. Despite her attempts to stay calm she let loose at Dick. Her lips went from very closed to very open, creating the illusion that her face was getting bigger. “You have got to be kidding! You actually took the mail into your office AGAIN, and well, I didn’t get the credit card statement. We now have a late fee. That’s a $39.00 late fee plus the interest…all because I couldn’t find the bill to pay it…AHHHhhhh, what is the matter with you?”
Dick couldn’t believe she was reacting this strongly. The credit card balance was only $800.00. Pretty low all in all. Dick was thinking, let’s see, what’s that, $10.00 interest fee, on top of the $39.00. Dick’s tried to remain rational, but he found his voice automatically elevated, matching Jane’s tone and intensity, “We are talking about a stupid $50.00 penalty. Give me a break. Everything always comes down to such a crisis for you. You are not happy unless you have something to complain about. When is the last time I forgot to pass on the credit card statement?”
Jane looked incredulously at Dick. How about for the last two out of four months? You seriously think I look forward to your latest “Oops” moments? Dick replied defensively and definitively, “Oh come on Jane, You know that is an exaggeration. No way. And yes, you seem to enjoy pointing out everything I do wrong. Guess you learned that from that sweet understanding mother of yours”.
Dick knew that one hit, and hit hard. He knew any reference to Jane’s mother was a trump card. Jane moved to the opposite end of the couch, threw up her right hand as though to dismiss Dick and the conversation, and took a deep breadth. Jane slid despondently and silently into silence. Dick. with his arms crossed his chest, felt vindicated. She was being unjust and unnecessarily critical. He remained like a stone, arms crossed. Both Jane and Dick had their own versions of that internal voice pronouncing the inevitable conclusion after such a heated exchange: “YOU MAKE ME FEEL CRAZY”.
Dick’s victory at ending the argument so quickly felt short-lived. Jane went to the kitchen and put on some coffee, aimlessly and mindlessly picking and cleaning things up. Dick stayed on the couch, checked his email on his smart phone, but he couldn’t really concentrate. After about 20 minutes, both Dick and Jane were feeling badly about the whole encounter. Yes they had their disagreements, but this was a bad one. What Happened?
Dick & Jane’s Play By Play
1. Jane started the conversation the wrong way. Instead of starting off with blame, a softer start would have been better, something like, “Dick, you took the mail and put it in your office. I’m frustrated because I didn’t see the credit card statement. I really need to have you leave the mail on the kitchen table until I have had a chance to see what’s there.”
2. Dick Was defensive. He could have taken some responsibility for the mail mishap. It’s possible a simple “I’m sorry”, might have helped. If Jane’s reaction continued, he could have asked what this was about.
3. Both became a catalyst for sensitive feelings. We all have enduring vulnerabilities that our partner tends to bring out from time to time. For Jane, she grew up in a family where father was financially irresponsible. She doesn’t see Dick as irresponsible, but in the moment all the old feelings and fears rushed in – she couldn’t help it. Furthermore, her mother was quite critical of Jane’s father and of Jane and her sister. Any identification with mother pushed a deep, painful button – and she knew Dick knew that. Dick too has his vulnerabilities. Growing up with a perfectionist father left Dick feeling like he always fell short. Jane’s criticism really hurt Dick. Needless to say, both got flooded with emotion very quickly.
4. Both became “flooded”, a term referring to physiology taking over our bodies, minds, and words. When activated, the sympathetic nervous system puts us on alert, signaling danger. Dr. Gottman discovered that when couples get physiologically flooded during an argument, communication deteriorates, humor disappears, and listening and empathy are impossible. The best option when one or both partners are flooded is to take a break until everybody is calm, at least 20 minutes.
Dick and Jane were able to get past this. The most important tool that couples have is repair. There is no way we can always avoid starting things out poorly, becoming defensive, triggering our partner, or becoming flooded. We can work on those things, but the key is to have a system to repair the relationship when it slips off track. We will cover that in the next blog. Don’t worry too much about Dick and Jane, the argument above sounded worse than it was because Dick and Jane know damage control…