A new study by Hinnekens et al (2022) looked at couples’ ability to mindread each other during conflict. They found that partners are only moderately successful at mindreading.
Another study by Simpson et al. (2021) showed that highly avoidant individuals were less empathically accurate with their partners. Clearly, mindreading and avoidance are not effective tools to deal with marital issues and problems.
When it comes to mind reading and conflict avoidance, nobody does it better than people who were raised in emotionally neglectful families. Having missed the opportunity to observe emotionally healthy arguing between their parents or to participate in resolving family issues in a direct and emotionally aware way, these individuals typically rely on the primary skill available to them: avoid conflict altogether.
Avoidance may seem fairly effective for a while. That is, until the suppressed feelings of frustration, annoyance, anger, or hurt build up enough to cause a major eruption or lie under the surface for decades, driving a couple farther and farther apart.
As a couples therapist who specializes in childhood emotional neglect, I often observe the great lengths that couples will go to avoid fighting. But the truth is, just like lightning crystallizes the electric charge and clears it from the air during a storm, fights can calm relationships by crystallizing and clearing the negative emotion between the partners.
There is a three-part cycle that characterizes all healthy, lasting relationships: Harmony/Rupture/Repair. It’s a common pattern that is both the way healthy couples naturally function and part of what enriches and sustains a relationship.
Harmony is the phase most relationships experience episodically when there is no particular conflict dividing them. When you are in harmony, you go about your daily life acting and feeling like a team. You can do your own thing all day and look forward to seeing each other at night. There might be some times of irritation or mild friction, but overall, you feel generally good together.
But this phase cannot last forever. Something almost always gets in the way. Life throws a wrench into the works. It may be an issue about parenting, finances, sex, or anything large or small, but something intervenes to throw off the harmony. Someone is hurt, angry, or upset. This starts phase two.
The rupture is the difficult and challenging part. It’s the phase that many couples, especially the ones who experienced childhood emotional neglect, try their best to avoid. But it’s a requirement for having a happy marriage. You absolutely must be able to allow yourselves to rupture. Then, you begin the repair process, which is the path that gets you back to harmony.
During the repair process, no matter how strong your feelings or how painful the interaction, you must both be committed to sticking together through it, as long as there is no abuse or harmful behavior going on.
During a rupture, if it’s a large one, you may feel extreme anger, even rage. You may feel hurt, judged, hopeless, helpless, or even hateful. All of these feelings are okay, have value, and matter. And what you do with your feelings before and during rupture matters very, very much.
The Goal of Repair: A Meeting of the Minds
If you can use and express your feelings in a healthy way and talk through a problem, you do not need to come to a clear answer or solution in order to come out the other side intact and in harmony. You only need to get the problem clarified and your feelings aired. This is the “meeting of the minds.”
The meeting of the minds happens when you understand your partner’s feelings and why they have them. You don’t have to agree that they’re right; you only need to see your partner’s perspective and also let your partner know that you see. You also need to receive the same understanding in return.
Sometimes it takes many ruptures, over time, to resolve a problem. In the meantime, a meeting of the minds allows you to remain a team and continue to grow and evolve together.