At our most recent 2-day Getting the Love You Want couples’ workshop, my husband Jason and I accompanied eight lovely couples on a rich experiential journey. Halfway through the workshop, the group had a collective epiphany: “It’s not about the dishes!” Their new awareness became our mantra and a playful refrain for the rest of the workshop.
The group’s insight captures deep wisdom about the nature of conflict and frustration. Indeed, most of us think that if I am feeling frustrated about something in my relationship, it’s my partner’s fault: he must be doing something to annoy or hurt me on purpose, or she is the problem and needs “fixing.” We also tend to get caught up in the presenting problem du jour—for many of our workshop couples, for example, this issue was how, when, and whether the dishes were cleaned. It seems like this frustration should be easily solved: just compromise and agree on some basic standards for the dishes and stop fighting about it. However, as any couple who has been mired in a seemingly trivial conflict knows, it’s not that easy. Because remember: it’s not about the dishes!
Imago, the powerful model for understanding and navigating intimate relationships, teaches us two important truths about conflict.
- If conflict is an iceberg, my frustration is only the visible, tip of the iceberg. Underneath it, hidden below the murky waters, are much more vulnerable realities, such as my hurt, fears, and unmet needs from the past.
- My frustration is actually 90% about me and only 10% about my partner. Yes, you read that correctly: your frustration is 90% about you! Our partners are stepping on old wounds, but did not create them. They are unconsciously triggering vulnerabilities in us that date back to childhood.
For one workshop couple, the husband’s frustration about the dishes was about his need to feel appreciated, heard, and valued—qualities he had not experienced enough growing up with an overworked, often absent, single mom doing the best she could to provide for her family. For another couple, “the dishes conflict” was about the woman’s deepest fear of never being cared for and always having to be responsible for others, as she had had to do growing up with alcohol abuse in her family.
Going below the surface of the conflict iceberg, in the context of a safe dialogue, sheds light on a completely different narrative. Partners gain new understanding, empathy, and curiosity for each other’s stories and unmet needs from childhood. With safety and empathy, they can learn to choose caring and healing behaviors that reduce the original frustration and address past unmet needs in ways that benefit both partners.
Next time you are tempted to blow up at your partner because you’re frustrated about the dishwasher or some other “minor” problem, stop, be curious, and remember: it’s not about the dishes, and your frustration is about YOU!
If you are stuck in painful, recurrent conflict and want help to understand your frustrations better, move through them constructively, and thrive in your relationship, contact Caroline or one of our Imago therapists on staff today. And if you’re curious about the 90-10 theory, consider joining us for our next Getting the Love You Want workshop adventure!