It Takes Two to Tango (But It Only Takes One to Love)

For most couples, conflict involves a gradual—or not so gradual—escalation of hostilities. But there is another way to dance through our love, and it contains some pretty “unexpected” steps…

Photo Credit: Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (Creative Commons)

Photo Credit: Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (Creative Commons)

I’m a mixture of several stubborn-blooded ethnicities, including Irish and German. My wife is mostly Portuguese, so her blood tends to run a little hot.

I have to admit, when we were first married, we had no idea what to do with all of our hardheaded energy.

In my eBook, I describe one fight that ended with a door slammed so hard it cracked right out of the plaster wall. My wife and I were experts at “negative escalation” of conflict. Most people are. 

The Dance to Divorce

Negative escalation is a cold, clinical term describing the very hot kind of one-upmanship that happens during most conflict, both within marriage and without:

You yell—I yell louder. 

You put up walls—I lay my walls with brick and mortar. 

You insult—I sling back an even more painful zinger—So you insult my mother—So I insult the way you mother our children. And so on.

Each iteration of the conflict is like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Except it’s the ladder of vengeance, and when you finally reach the top and fall off you don’t bust your skull—you break a heart or two. 

But here’s the really counterintuitive and disturbing fact revealed by decades of “sequential analysis” research: positive escalation is also damaging to marriages. That is, couples who engage in a quid pro quo exchange of positive behaviors also report less satisfying relationships.  

When our behavior in marriage is dependent or contingent upon what has been done to us—regardless of whether that behavior is positive or negative—it results in the destruction of relationship.

In high-conflict marriages, we obliterate our love with hostility and anger. In polite marriages, we smile our way into saccharine staleness. It takes two to tango—two people executing all the expected, eye-for-an-eye steps in relationship—and we can dance ourselves all the way into divorce.

Love is In the Unexpected

It takes two to tango. But the the good news is, it only takes one to love.  The very same marital research has revealed negative escalation can be disrupted when just one partner chooses to do something different and new.

As it turns out, love is doing the unexpected. Love is refusing to read from the script. It’s refusing to play the usual games. Love is laughing at yourself when you’re supposed to be yelling at your partner. Love is snuggling in when you would normally be choosing a night on the couch over a night in the bed. Love is a cup of coffee on the bedside table the morning after a big fight. Love is a surprise, and it only takes one.

And sometimes, the biggest surprise of all is when we respond with empathy instead of a retort. 

Transforming Conflict into Common Ground

Empathy is a place of common ground where we understand the interior landscape of the other because we feel it, too. I know what you’re wondering: How in the world can we find that kind of common ground when we’re cut and bleeding from the daggers being thrown at us?

The answer is deceptively simple but painfully hard: the daggers lay the foundation for common ground. When our partner is hurting, they behave in ways to make us feel exactly the hurt they are feeling. They want us to “know what it feels like.”

I see it happen every day in marital therapy: Husband hurls an insult and wife gets hurt. I stop the interaction and I ask the wife how she feels and she says, “I feel hurt and alone.” And the angry husband fires back, “Well, that’s exactly how I feel.” They often look at me in stunned disbelief when I say, “Good, now you are both feeling the same thing. You can make that the common ground where you meet and have real empathy for each other. Or you can keep fighting. The choice is yours.” 

And the truth is, it is up to each spouse. Either partner can be the one to do the radically unexpected—to transform that hurt into a place of empathy, to put down the verbal weapon that will move the conflict to the next rung of the vengeance ladder and instead to take a step down.

The surface of our conflict is loud, so we rarely become aware of the quiet and shared emotions beneath the surface. The gentle, vulnerable emotions whisper instead of screaming. They sob instead of shouting. They feel hurt instead of spreading hurt. They go completely unnoticed, and yet they are the common ground in which we can all exist together, look each other in the eye, and say, “Yeah, me too.” 

Climbing a New Kind of Ladder

Our best research has revealed that love thrives when we stop giving our spouses what they deserve and start giving them the unexpected embrace of all that they are—when we give them, in a word, grace

Ironically, in this regard, our scientists sound a lot like some of our theologians.

Let’s be still and quiet, and let’s listen for the pain beneath our anger. And when we finally notice the quiet common ground beneath the surface of our conflict, let’s go there. Let’s put words to it. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s connect within it.

And let’s start climbing an entirely different kind of ladder together.

Comments? What makes it hard to de-escalate conflict and to empathize in this way? Your ideas may make it into the next post post! Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.   

PreviewTransforming our conflict in this way can be even harder than it sounds. My next post on Wednesday, March 6, will unpack some of the barriers to doing so and is tentatively entitled, “The 5 Barriers to Empathy (And How to Overcome Them).”    

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace, and we can choose to succumb to shame, or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame. And as always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kim

    Recently, my husband heard an author on NPR talking about a book, and he came home and ordered it for me because he thought I would like it. He’s not a gifty guy, and that was literally the first time in 20 years of marriage he’s done something like that. I was so touched and surprised that I’m sure I let my guard down a bit…and a few weeks later when my world came crashing down for reasons unrelated to my marriage, I turned to him for help, also for the first time in 20 years, and while it was hard at first, he’s actually turned out to be good at being part of my support system.

    I’m not sure if that’s what you meant when you said “Love is a surprise”, but that’s the story that sprang to my mind. Seeing words put around it in your post made me realize what a Big Deal it really was.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Kim. If you do him a massive favor and he shows up with the book, well, okay, that’s understandable. But when he shows up with the book out of nowhere…that’s love! Give your hubby a high-five for me.

  • LA

    Thank you for your consistently poignant and insightful writing. I would like to hear you speak more about the “polite marriage” as you call it. Thirty years of marriage begins to feel like a cage when neither partner can break out of the kindness dance…..no honest disagreements ever get addressed because, despite being hurt and angry, no one wants to hurt the other.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank YOU for your kind words. I’ve officially added a “polite marriage” post to the docket. Not sure what I will say yet, but I’ll let it percolate for a little while and see what happens. Thanks for the nudge!

  • Jennifer Newell

    You asked, “What makes it hard to de-escalate?” The honest truth is because I am mad, angry, frustrated and tired. I need time to work through those emotions before I can find a way to be empathic. Early in my marriage I would say, the volume or our “discussions” would be pretty loud. Sadly I would say I was the one with the need to be louder. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I thought if I was loud enough he would finally hear me.

    I understand the unexpected. The first time my husband decided he was not going to be part of my negative escalation really shut me down fast. Over the past 22 yrs I can say he is the more unpredictable one. He is not one to lose his temper and he rarely raises his voice. He has a pretty high threshold before he gets really mad. I have only seen him really mad 2 times in my marriage. And even then he will walk away and take a walk and come back later to try to talk about our issue. I would say as married people we know how to push each other’s buttons. Somewhere along the line, he just stopped doing that and is able to cut to the chase and try to solve the issues faster.

    I think until you stop worrying about you, it is hard be empathic to your spouse. Sometimes I just need to be mad for a while. Then I can call and say, hey I am sorry I lost my temper I was just frustrated with the situation and not mad at you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I couldn’t agree more, Jen. We can’t rush through our anger, but we also can’t get stuck there. Taking a break to process through anger and then re-initiating is a great way to handle it. We usually recommend that the spouse who needs the break also commits to being the one to resume the discussion.

  • Carrie Derks

    Thank you for the reminders of where my attitude needs to be. The consistent reminder that I get when I read your posts is that selfishness leads to misery. I sometimes wonder why I was happier with less when I was younger then I read your posts and over and over again you show me the reason: I’ve grown more selfish over the years. You show me that if I just bring my focus back to making others happy, my own happiness will return and grow on its own. I need your consistent and gentle reminders. So again, I say thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      My pleasure, Carrie. I have another marriage post in the pipeline that will deal with the important balance of attending to the emotions of others, as well as to taking care of our own emotions. I think the balance is important!

  • Sue O’Donnell

    I always look forward to your writing. Today’s past reminds me of the question – Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?
    When I choose to be right, I often do not feel good about myself … When I choose to be happy – to love, I feel at ease with myself

    • drkellyflanagan

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Sue. At the same time, it seems like there can be a tipping point on the other side of it, where NEVER asserting one’s own opinion, etc., makes it impossible to be happy. I want to wrestle with finding that balance in a future post. Thanks for this.

      • Lyn B

        I would greatly be interested in reading a post about this! Struggling to value his opinions about certain things but feeling that my feelings about things don’t matter and means I’m “being controlling” It works both ways, a give and take on BOTH parties. One person can’t always be the loving one who gives in every time and keeps on giving love and affection when they are continuously hurt and not shown affection over and over again. It gets tiring and drains you emotionally to always be the one trying when it feels like the other isn’t

        • drkellyflanagan

          Lyn, thanks for your feedback! I have two marital posts coming up in June and July, and the second one in July will deal with this issue. I intended to publish it sooner, but I didn’t like how it was turning out. I’ll look forward to hearing your feedback when you read it, and thanks for the encouragement to post it.

  • Laura

    What makes it hard to de-escalate conflict and to empathize in this way?

    I find revealing pain/hurt is a very vulnerable and intimate process in itself. That is why it can feel so difficult to do for me. Personally, I am only coming to understand — to believe — that regardless of whether it is met with empathy by the beloved or not, it doesn’t have to challenge my concept about or belief that love exists. If anything, pushing the boundary of my pain/hurt has left me somewhat ‘dumbstruck’ about how huge love is and how for me, the inner core begins with loving myself first. In that regard empathy to me is about a condition of kindred humility that begins with an article of faith first — a leap — not necessarily a sign. I’m still learning that this is a better guide for me during moments of crises and that putting it into a relational context – my marriage – takes practice and time. Thank you for the inspiring considerations.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is beautiful, Laura. Thank YOU.

  • Pingback: The 5 Barriers to Empathy in Marriage (And How to Overcome Them) | UnTangled()

  • Lisa Bartelt

    My husband and I are both first-borns, which makes us both stubborn at times with an annoyingly ever-present need to be right. Over stupid stuff. Like how to squeeze the tube of toothpaste. Or take the temperature of a whole chicken in the oven. We can escalate over these things without even trying because we both think we’re “right.” I’m slowly (so slowly) learning that it’s not about being right. Even if I think I’m right and he’s wrong and he won’t budge, I need to let it go. And offer grace. It’s sacrifice of the smallest, daily kind, and it hurts sometimes, but it doesn’t destroy me or us. Two people living together daily means that sometimes I have to give up my ways, my ideas, my rights as an act of love. Because I value our togetherness more than I value my ways, ideas or rights. Another great post, Kelly! Keep up the good work!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lisa, thanks for this; it’s beautifully stated. I like that it hurts but doesn’t destroy.

  • Pingback: Why Couples Shouldn’t Do Couples Therapy (Says the Couples Therapist) | UnTangled()

  • Leonid

    Forgive my skepticism, but would it be possible to have a reference for the statement you made: “positive escalation is also damaging to marriages”? Excellent article 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      I can understand your skepticism, Leonid! For instance, in a literature review in “The Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills,” edited by Greene and Burleson, on page 731, there is a review of three studies supporting the finding that positive reciprocity is associated with long-term declines in marital satisfaction, including Filsinger and Thoma (1988), Gottman (1994), and Weiss and Heyman (1997). God bless you if you choose to dig into the original sources. 🙂

  • LWV

    In a marriage with a partner who is an abusive narcissist, no amount of empathy, “doing something different” or unexpected by the other partner will change what is fundamentally dysfunctional in the marriage.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Agreed.

  • Vanessa Portaro

    so what if one partner makes the same mistake more than once – like behaving in a way that leads to mistrust? how many times does the other partner respond with empathy and increased love? when does THAT become destructive?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Vanessa, Lyn had the same question today in the comments above. I just responded to her and mentioned that I do have a post in the pipeline about this topic. Generally, as a therapist, it seems when someone is asking this question, the imbalance in the relationship has already become destructive. In the post, I want to explore what that looks like and what to do about it. I’ll look forward to your feedback!

  • Misha

    how do you employ this and still feel like you’ve gotten what you needed if you are the ‘one’ who decides to love? when we argue isn’t there usually a need that isn’t being met? how do you avoid offering empathy to your partner and feeling empty afterward? (i hope i’m articulating this question well)