Looked at closely, relationships consist of complex interactive cycles, driven by needs and emotions, often repeated in highly patterned ways. All relationships have helpful, and harmful patterns. Some patterns are obvious (e.g. the same old fight about money). Others are more subtle. I had an illuminating conversation with a couple about an apparently minor negative interaction they had had just prior to their appointment with me. It went something like this:
Him: She called me at 2:56 when I said I would be home at 3 to get here on time. She wanted to check if I was on my way. As it happened I was right around the corner. So, then I thought, “screw you” [He smiles]. And I told her, “I’m still half an hour away”.
Her: [Smiling too] I can’t believe what he said. He knew what would happen.
Therapist: What happened?
Her: I freaked out. Of course I did, I thought we were going to be late. I hate being late.
Him: Come on, man! She was already freaking out when I picked up the phone. That’s what pissed me off.
Therapist: This is so interesting! Let’s slow this down. So, there was something about her tone when you picked up the phone. Something familiar perhaps, and hearing it, you felt angry? What else?
Him: Well, it annoys me that she doesn’t think I’ll be on time. I do so much in the family and I’m always on time. But when she gets like that I feel bad about myself, like, she doesn’t expect me to do anything right.
Therapist: That makes a lot of sense to me. So, to fend off that sense of badness, what did you do next? You sort of poked her, didn’t you?
Him: I guess I did. I felt like, “you’re angry at me for nothing… which makes me feel bad about myself. So, go ahead, I’ll make you really angry”. [Pause] I guess that’s part of our pattern.
Therapist: So, before we find out what was going on for your partner in that moment, what would it be like to tell her, right now, what you were actually feeling in that moment?
Such, pokes, prods, or provocations occur in many couples, and they can have a toxic effect. They can come in lots of different forms: an eye roll; coming home late; flirting with a friend; a sarcastic response; grabbing another glass of wine; ignoring a text message for a few hours etc. etc. Most often these pokes are ways of expressing anger or frustration in a passive way. The common denominator is this: instead of feeling the underlying emotion (anger, shame, disappointment), you unconsciously try to induce a negative emotional reaction in your partner. If the pattern is embedded, you might be casually aggravating your partner without even realizing you are doing it.
Remember, it’s normal to experience anger in your relationship, but ideally you would do something with that anger that brings you and your partner closer together. I’ll write more about anger and how to work with it in a different post. For now, practice the key relationship skill of accountability. Think, journal or even talk with your partner about your preferred methods of poking, prodding, and provoking. If the idea of a conversation seems daunting, remember that it’s much easier to unpick patterns like this with the support of a trained relationship therapist. Please call me so I can help you work through these patterns.