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  • The Reflective Doc

Stormy Weather in Your Relationships

Updated: May 17, 2022

In his intimate essay on life, relationships, and parenthood, author Keith Gessen shared the following moment of conflict with his wife. “I can’t remember what started it, but that’s not the point—our fights are ambient, the product of a certain level of humidity. The humidity rises for a while, and then it rains.”

This line grabbed my attention, proposing a powerful metaphor for the dynamics of our intimate relationships. By evoking the inevitability of weather to describe conflict with his wife, he reminded me of a reality any well-trained therapist would support: all couples, even those in healthy relationships, will argue.

I began reflecting on disagreements in my own marriage. Sometimes a sudden thunder cloud interrupts a perfectly lovely day, as one of us makes a hurtful comment or unwelcome suggestion. The argument rapidly gains power, striking with surprising force. Like reception guests caught in a downpour, we flee to our separate shelters to wait it out.

Other days we awaken with a heaviness in the air, looking out at covered skies with little hope of sunshine. Perhaps one of us slept poorly after a difficult meeting at work, or wrestled with self-doubt during a new endeavor. Or maybe the daily accumulations of stress had too few outlets, and we were struggling to contain our frustration through another day. In these moments, it takes little to escalate a perceived slight into a painful exchange of accusations.

In my work with individuals and couples, I have learned that not only do these various days occur for everyone, but also that some relationships exist in entirely different ecosystems. For example, while some experience a climate with frequent rainstorms followed by bright sunshine, others may go days or weeks without rain, to be taken by surprise when it finally falls.

We’ve all had models of relationships throughout our early years, and whether we consciously choose to emulate or avoid these examples, they are held within us, surfacing unexpectedly during conflict. If you grew up in a household that handled disagreements loudly and with passion, for example, this type of exchange may not seem catastrophic. Try this approach on your partner from a family who avoided direct accusation, however, and you will see them retreat faster than a young child at bedtime.

With this variety on display, my role with couples is to help them figure out how to fight fairly. First they need to better understand the ways their upbringing may contribute to their present challenges. This can help them identify the mode of interaction they find engaging, rather than distressing. Then I help them build empathy toward their partner, who is reading from a different childhood script. Finally, we work together to bridge their communication gaps and design the best path forward.

Take time to consider the climate of your own relationship, as well as the examples you have absorbed throughout your lifetime. You can edit the scripts you carry, and grow alongside your partner. Inevitably, there will be storms, but with understanding, empathy, and a willingness to move through conflict fairly, a glorious sunrise is on the horizon.

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