Why's my partner behaving so badly - 'what lies beneath'?

Many couples come to counselling with the question "Why is my partner behaving so badly?" S/He used to be thoughtful, respectful, loving - now, for reasons I don't understand, s/he has changed, and become this clingy/distant/angry/nasty person! 

Attempts to resolve issues on this level often escalate to create a negative loop - that is, one person's attempts to let the other know that their behaviour is upsetting them brings a negative response from the other, the first person then either withdraws or retaliates, the other one feels either alone or attacked and responds accordingly.....

While some behaviour does need to be named and challenged as not OK - for example, ANY form of violence or abuse, be it physical, emotional or psychogical - mainly it's not helpful to focus on our partner's behaviour in order to try and work through problems.

It's more helpful to try and understand what lies beneath the behaviour - after all, most of us behave badly when we feel disconnected from the one we love and depend on.

Some examples of this might be:

* My partner is always complaining that I'm never home before 9 p.m. What she is really trying to say is "I miss us having the connecting time we used to have before you started your new job. I miss you!"

* I accuse my partner of flirting with other people when we are out at parties. What I'm actually struggling with is we don't have sex very often lately, and when we do it feels like we're just going through the motions.

* My partner scolds me for not doing more chores around the house. What he wants to tell me is "I don't feel you value the work I'm putting in on the house to build our future together. I'm not sure you are investing in our future like you used to - do you still want us to be together for the long haul?"

What does this mean for how we may respond differently to our partner, in order to find out what lies beneath?

It may mean holding back the need to defend ourselves, or to point out to our partner that they are being unreasonable.

* Instead of saying "You know I have to work long hours" I may say "This job has meant a lot of changes for us - how are you going with it?"

* Rather than pointing out that my partner also flirted with other people last time we were out, I may say "I don't remember when we last flirted with each other - do you?"

* Instead of reminding my partner that just last weekend I cleaned the gutters AND mowed the lawn, I may try "Although I do what I can, I'm aware you're doing a lot more around the house than I'm able to do. Maybe I haven't said it recently, but I really value that - thankyou for all the effort you put in."

Non-defensive answers, an effort to understand and be curious about what our partners are really trying to tell us can open the door to finding out what lies underneath what may feel like an attack or unreasonable behaviour. Once we know what's really going on, we can work to resolve the real issue, be it finding more connecting time in the face of increased work demands, committing to spicing up our sex life, or remembering to tell each other how much we value their effort and love.




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