Relationship Therapy and Arguments - Story from book Better Together

30 - Apr - 2024

Cycles and patterns of constant arguments often hide underlying struggles that need partners to take a step back and look at their situation. In this story published in Better Together you can read about Saul and Luciano's experience of relationship therapy. 

Saul and Luciano

  We can’t stop having petty arguments

The Background

Saul and Luciano came for therapy because, having been together for about twelve years, they had become stuck in a vicious cycle of small arguments, as they describe them. ‘Petty arguments,’ Saul said, which would result in ‘painful standoffs in which we don’t speak, or we’re cool and distant with one another for several days at a time’. In the last couple of years, these had become ‘more and more frequent,’ and that meant that the two of them ended up spending ‘less time together, had less sex and fun and felt more stressed’. ‘I simply don’t feel supported,’ Saul said, ‘and neither do I,’ Luciano added.

 Luciano, who is Spanish, and Saul, who is British, met when they both went on a gay pride parade.  They were each with their own groups of friends but, when there was an altercation with a couple of drunk men who shouted abuse from the sidelines, Luciano began to argue back, and it looked as though things might get very heated. At that point Saul stepped in to calm things down, leading Luciano away from the drunks. 

Once he’d cooled down Luciano thanked Saul. He gave me a hug,’ Saul said, which made the usually ‘shy’ Saul ‘blush with pleasure. We laughed together like drunken idiots, got talking, exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up that evening’. 

From that time on they were together, their joyous relationship based around shared values of freedom of expression and rights and their deeply held beliefs about equality and peace. 

Five years ago things changed when Luciano began to work longer hours in his job, running a care agency and they began to have less free time together. The trigger, for Luciano, was ‘the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It made me feel very insecure’. Growing up in Spain, in a religious family, he had not felt that his sexuality was accepted. After moving to Britain he found ‘acceptance and love. Then suddenly my whole way of life seemed to be threatened’. He decided to work hard, so that he could save enough money to support life for him and Saul in either Britain or Spain.

Two years ago, Luciano proposed to Saul. ‘I felt that this would be a way to ensure I could stay in Britain, but I didn’t say this to Saul, it seemed so unromantic. And the more I thought about us marrying the more excited I got. I ended up planning a romantic meal in the restaurant where we had our first date, and I proposed over a glass of champagne. I felt it would seal our love and it would help me too, so the best of both worlds.’

When Saul turned the proposal down, Luciano was ‘absolutely gutted’. For his part Saul was ‘astonished’ that Luciano had proposed because he felt that marriage would be, ‘conforming to oppressive social values that Luciano and I don’t believe in.’ Saul felt that ‘romantic as the proposal was, we would regret marrying’. 

It was around this time that they began to argue more often. Saul felt ‘depressed’ about the state of their relationship and eventually they agreed that they would go to therapy together.

In the first session, both Saul and Luciano talked about how they saw theirs as a really ‘strong relationship’. Both were committed to finding, ‘a way through our problems’.

In the second session we agreed to start looking in more detail at what was happening during their conflicts. 

My Initial Response

When I heard about Luciano’s proposal and Saul’s refusal I felt shocked and sad. And as always, when I feel something in response to what partners are saying, it raises the question in my mind, ‘does this feeling of mine have the potential to be of service here?’ To answer this question I had to reflect on several things, including my own experiences of rejection, what I know professionally about rejection, how the information was shared and the dynamic between Luciano and Saul. 

I concluded that my shock was not about my own experiences of rejection, but rather it was an alert to the shock for their relationship, which had suffered a wound or trauma that might well have the power to destabilise. The story of the proposal left me with many questions and I suspected that this was because they were themselves unclear about how this could have happened for them. 

I was certain that Luciano’s experience of a sense of threat to his security following the EU referendum result had not been fully understood by either of them. I was moved thinking about Luciano’s insecurity and also what I suspected to be Saul’s loneliness.  

I thought of communion in terms of the moment of their meeting and ease through the following period prior to the referendum. Conversely, I thought about a sense of unease following the referendum and then alienation at the moment of the proposal.

I noticed Luciano’s response to his unease was to look to two particular pillars of life to help counter his insecurity; he focused on work and he thought, in practical terms, about how to secure his relationship. 

I suspected the balance of their togethering was disturbed, firstly through their having less time together, and also by misunderstandings because of an apparent divergence in their doing and agreeing, with Saul feeling a greater burden of the domestic chores and a creeping erosion of trust in shared values and equality. 

Finally, their engaging was not enabling them to form a shared understanding of these impacts. They both seemed to be striving in their differing ways without agreeing this together and I thought that this prevented them from understanding that they were both desperate for the same thing – the return of how they used to experience their relationship. 

In Session

‘We had an argument again last night, one of those petty little arguments, and I've been so upset, I've just not been able to speak about it,’ Saul says.

I say, ‘so last night was one of the arguments that we spoke about in the first session? The kind of argument that the two of you have struggled with?’ 

‘Yes,’ they both reply.

I'm wondering what the argument was about?’ I ask.

‘Hah,’ says Saul. ‘Well, talking about conforming to other people’s relationship expectations, it was about putting out the rubbish. You see, I end up doing all the planning stuff around the house, you know?  All the practical things. I do the weekly shop online, I sort out the bills, I organise the cleaner, I do the washing.’ 

Is that a problem?’ I ask. 

I like doing all that stuff,’ Saul says. ‘Don't get me wrong. I mean, I like looking after our home and keeping it nice. But I feel a little uncomfortable because, well, going back to the societal thing, then, you know, its a bit like, I end up being the one at home, the ‘wife’ having to sort out the stuff whilst the ‘husband’ is busy working; the kind of thing that was the norm in the 1950s. So, there is a bit of discomfort around that. 

‘There's just one thing that I always ask Luciano to do, and that is put the rubbish out. And, as usual, last night, he forgot. Well, he said forgot, but he always forgets. So, for me, it's not just that he's forgotten, it's that he doesn't want to do it. And then I get really frustrated because he's agreed to do it, he says he wants to do it, but he doesn’t do it. I think he doesn't want to do it. And it just really annoys me that he can't be honest about it.'

OK,’ I say. ‘Luciano, what would you like to say about this?

I really appreciate all the work that Saul does, I do. And I do want to put the rubbish out and do my bit. But I work so hard, I'm always on my emails, there's a project that I'm working on, and there's so much I’m involved in that I forget about other stuff. Saul is so organized, he plans everything; he remembers all the birthdays, he pays all the bills on time. I forget about all these things. Saul will turn his emails off at five o'clock at night. I can't do that; I'm looking at my emails at 10 o'clock at night. As something comes in then I'm straight on to it. I wish I wasn't so busy, but I am, and I can't sleep unless everything is cleared. I need to make sure that everything gets sorted out before I can relax.'

I notice in myself a feeling of exhaustion and misery and the thought pops into my head; I could do with a laugh right now. As this occurs to me, I wonder about the fun in their relationship.

I'm thinking that it sounds as though life became very serious for the two of you some time ago,’ I say. ‘Do you have fun together nowadays?'

They shift in their seats and Saul says, ‘well, we haven't had a holiday for a year. We do meet up with friends and things but yeah, we don't play together much. And we hardly ever have sex nowadays. I miss what we used to be like before things got so heavy. Luciano talks about being afraid of us being separated but quite often I feel lonely. It's as though we've already been separated, even though we're still together.’

Luciano starts to cry, gently at first but then there are deep sobs. 

Saul looks over at Luciano and says, ‘what’s wrong? Why are you so upset? Whats going on?

Luciano continues to sob. After a little while he seems to regain some composure. He dries his eyes and then he says, ‘I am just feeling so sad. I’ve spent the last five years desperately trying to keep us together and all my efforts have just kept us apart. I miss us too. I miss you, Saul. I miss how much fun we used to have.’

Saul moves close to Luciano and puts his arm around him and hugs him. We sit in silence for a minute or so and then Luciano turns to look into Saul’s eyes. His look is concerned and caring. Suddenly Luciano gives Saul a little poke in the ribs and they both begin to laugh.

The Moment

My intervention came when my feeling of exhaustion led to my thinking about the opposite of what Saul and Luciano were speaking about; as they discussed chores, I wondered about fun. The whole energy of the relationship had, over time, become skewed towards the practical tasks of living and the admin of being in a relationship. Being alerted to something that had become hidden from them acted to break their pattern of focus and to allow them to reconnect.

When both of them dissolve into laughter, recognising the struggles both had gone through and that behind these struggles was their deep their love for one another, this was the moment of understanding for Saul and Luciano, providing a moment of communion as they shifted into a state of ataraxy.

What Happened Next

After this breakthrough Luciano started to make more time for fun. As he did so his anxiety diminished and this meant that Saul’s anxiety also decreased. Luciano continued to work as hard as before and Saul continued to take care of the household, but they made sure that there were times when they could have fun. They even made some household chores into games they could play, for instance racing to put the bins out and hiding them from one another.

A few months later they entered into a civil partnership, which brought both of them peace of mind in terms of their shared future in Britain. Luciano now has British citizenship, which he is delighted about, and Saul is going to apply for Spanish citizenship. Curiously, they also found that after their civil partnership they felt more relaxed and secure. They agreed that, to their surprise, the civil partnership, which they had thought of as an instrument of oppression, actually brought them security and liberation.

My Reflection

Saul did not reject Luciano’s proposal because it was the wrong solution but because the proposal had different meanings for each of them and they hadn’t jointly arrived at the proposal as the solution to the issue of Luciano’s insecurity. Relationships often struggle because there is a lack of clarity around what the partners expect will be decided between them, in other words, where they will agree, or have consensus.

Additionally, for Luciano and Saul, the proposal was clearly at odds with the belief system on which their relationship rested. In heterosexual relationships a proposal is something that happens due to expectations driven by society. In a non-heterosexual relationship those expectations are much less likely to exist, as society has less influence. 

In the wake of the rupture to their relationship caused by the proposal and its rejection, their togethering was affected in being and doing; as the cycle of arguments began, they had less time together, less energy available for each other and growing levels of misunderstanding in both their verbal and non-verbal communication. All of this resulted in less agreeing, or consensus around the day-to-day aspects of keeping a relationship in balance. 

As is so often the case, their ‘petty little argument’ was not about the apparent issue – the bins, it was about the underlying struggle which was putting pressure on the balance of their relationship. The underlying struggle being the unease that had come into their relationship around the issue of support. Saul’s reaction to the proposal meant Luciano felt unsupported and, as work became more important to Luciano as a source of support and security, his focus changed and he forgot to put the bins out – which meant that Saul also felt unsupported.

What Saul and Luciano had missed was the opportunity to talk about why Luciano had proposed. In the shock of the situation Saul didn’t ask Luciano about why he had arrived at that decision, and Luciano didn’t explain that it was connected to his anxiety about staying in Britain. Presenting the solution to Saul without his reasoning in arriving at it, meant that his struggle was not understood. After this, feeling hurt and in the light of their differing opinions, Luciano accepted responsibility for dealing with his anxiety alone, rather than them sharing the problem. 

It is often the case that, as in Saul and Luciano’s situation, partners become so focused on the serious aspects of their relationship that they lose sight of the fun. These two things are on the same continuum, and I often find myself saying to people in a situation like this, ‘when we are looking left, we are not looking right’.