She starts scrolling through her Facebook. Her best friend posted pics from her anniversary weekend in Hawaii with her husband. Their 5 year-old daughter, Ruby, screams from her room down the hall. Chris doesn’t even blink. He just keeps at it.
It’s nothing. She’s just having a tantrum because her lego castle broke. Robin consoles her and heads back into the living room. Chris is still on his phone.
“Don’t worry. She’s fine,” she says sarcastically. He doesn’t respond. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Finally, he looks up at her with a look that feels to her like a cocktail of anger, annoyance and indifference. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says.
“Fuck you,” he says.
“Really? That’s all you have to say? Jesus, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“You, if you really wanna know. You’re what’s wrong,” he says.
“And how’s that, huh?”
“Everything that comes out of your mouth is either full of sarcasm, criticism, or disappointment. That’s how...I give up. What’s the point? If no matter what I say or do is not good enough, why do anything at all?” Chris asks.
“You see. There you again...They don’t want anything to do with me. They just want you. You trained them well,” he says.
“Oh please. You’re such a victim. Look in the fucking mirror. At least own some of it. Do you not think that you have anything to do with it? And the kids?”
“Like I said, nothing I do is good enough,” he says.
It’s common for couples to get triggered and caught up in the manifest content like Robin and Chris here. The latent content, which is 90% of the iceberg, remains underwater, unseen and unexplored.
The manifest content of this argument for Chris is that Robin is always criticizing, sarcastic and that nothing is good enough. Also, it's that she has trained the kids to ignore him and that he has given up, because there is no point in trying.
The manifest content for Robin is that she feels far from Chris and is fed up of him always being on his phone and ignoring her and the kids.
Both have a victim stance in the argument. Both feel wronged by the other and take aggressive and defensive postures. The aggression and defensiveness keep them stuck in the manifest content and make it more and more unsafe to explore the latent content.
The tricky thing is that he is not admitting to, or, aware of, a good portion of the latent content. It would be painful and exposing and unsafe to do so, so he withdraws and shuts down instead.
Robin feels abandoned, unloved, unattractive and alone. These are all deeply familiar feelings for her. Her parents got divorced when she was Ruby’s age. Her dad took off and never came back.
If Robin were to connect to that pain on top of the pain she is experiencing in her relationship with Chris, it would make her extremely vulnerable and raw. She copes by needling and insulting Chris.
Chris’s withdrawing behavior and Robin’s needling behavior trigger old wounds and insecurities for both of them. This fight is a typical fight where they stay in their respective trenches, lobbing grenades at each other, making it feel more and more perilous to step out with a white flag.
My job as a therapist with couples is to help them to see and understand the manifest content, its function and impact, and to create a safe enough space for them to climb out of their trenches. Lobbing a grenade at someone when you can see their face is a lot different.
When we stay stuck in the manifest content, we do not see the other. We only see our own pain and suffering and act desperately to protect against it like cornered prey.
I created Love After Kids to help to build awareness of this universal dynamic; to help to normalize and understand the complexities and, in turn, combat the shame and make space for healing and reconnection.