In our intimate partnerships, we may try hard to connect, wish to be heard, feel understood, ask for change, and validate all of those things. Yet we might be met with resistance.
We start asking Why, Why, Why questions …
- Why are you so defensive?
- Why won’t you listen to me?
- Why won’t you talk to me?
- Why can’t we work on this?
Then things likely escalate, and our partner sounds even more defensive, which might make us feel attacked, so we become more defensive too! Round and round and round we go. So, the dance of disconnection continues. Sound familiar?
Well, the good news is that there are many places we can break the cycle in this chain of reactivity. This Blog will highlight one opportunity with how to eliminate the Why, Why, Why.
First, let’s look at how this gets created. It’s about the brain and how we are socialized, and it starts with the developing brain of a child where automatic responses are set up. Parents typically react to the distressing behavior of a child by asking Why? It’s kind of a functional shaming reaction to stress.
When a parent is shocked and needs to take action, they may speak like this:
- Why did you hit your sister?
- Why did you run through the house with your muddy boots on?
- Why did you put that marble up your nose?
Really, what do the Why questions represent?
There’s a line of often unspoken reasoning underneath the questions that the child understands, that goes something like this…
- Why did you do that?
- What were you thinking?
- That is crazy, dangerous, bad, just plain wrong!
- That scared me, so I am upset and angry with you!
- Don’t do that again!
- You will be punished…
So the brain pairs Why and questions in general with danger, like “I’m Bad!” and “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble now!”
Since a healthy child learns to avoid or prevent punishment or danger (which can simply include an angry voice tone from a parent), this sequence of feeling fear, guilt, or shame, and then avoidance naturally gets set up.
When this sequence of fear, guilt, shame, and avoidance happens, it naturally causes a fight, flight, or freeze response. This type of response naturally kicks in to save us from harm or help us cope when we are in trouble. So it’s very functional. The parent becomes upset = the child adjusts behavior.
Any caregiver can set up this response in a child – even a teacher.
When my son Rob was in Elementary school, he was outside in the winter for recess. He and a friend were occupying themselves by holding a door to the school open. When the recess teacher saw them, she came over and said, “Why are you holding the door open?” Rob answered her honestly and responded, “Because it’s warm.” He was then accused of being disrespectful and sent to the principal’s office for punishment.
It is not logical to punish a child for being honest and answering a question. However, this is what happens when an adult is reactive and doesn’t take the time to explain the offense and guide the child in a better direction.
The recess teacher could have said, “Yes, …it is warm, but we have to keep the doors closed to hold in the heat. Now, please go play…” Then my son would have felt validated and redirected respectfully.
Validation, support, and respect are important in our adult relationships, too, especially if we want to flourish together. We need to take more time to validate and redirect each other in respectful ways. However, like that teacher at recess, we may often be on auto-pilot and unknowingly punish each other or trigger defensiveness.
How does this pattern show up with our partner?
Let’s say we have a wife who asks her husband for more help around the house. She thinks this is a simple and valid request, but yet there’s some level of annoyance that’s motivating her to speak up. Her husband immediately picks up on the underlying annoyance and prepares for the attack.
Her request for more help triggers underlying feelings inside of him in less than a flash, such as:
- Danger! I am bad!
- Here we go again…
- She thinks I don’t do enough.
- She doesn’t appreciate what I do.
- She doesn’t see what I do for this household/family.
So the brain picks up on some level of risk or danger. He may not immediately get in touch with those thoughts, but he feels the reaction in his body, which comes from the past, of getting in trouble or being wrong with someone, so he reacts with defensiveness. So when we feel a need to defend, what do we do? We argue or make an excuse to shut it down to protect our tender psyche. We know we are not bad!
Maybe this husband starts to argue or makes an excuse, such as:
- Why should I have to…?
- I already do more than most guys.
- I barely have enough time to….
The wife is surprised but tries to honor him with curiosity. She uses a Why statement to understand.
She might say:
- Why are you getting upset?
- Why would you say that?
- Why don’t you want to help me?
- Why don’t you love me?
Underneath she’s been triggered too and is feeling scared, diminished, or even unloved. The questions will likely increase his defense, which will increase her offense. The anger in his voice scares her, so she shuts down and can’t listen or be curious anymore. Eventually, what happens after the mutual criticism is an eventual walking away and silence.
If this happens for you, know that you are normal and not alone! But we can adjust this dynamic and break the pattern.
Presence can help break the pattern.
Break the pattern by slowing down without the Why, Why, Why interrogation.
If we want to help our partner go deeper and give a true answer of why they feel the way they do without defensiveness, we’ll need to open up a space for them to get in touch with what’s really going on. It can help to eliminate the Why, Why, Why, as we move away from the threatening inquiry or interrogation.
Here’s an example of how to break the pattern. We can say:
- Help me understand your ideas (or feelings) around this.
- Then, slow down, stop and really listen…
- Remember, your partner is your only priority at the moment.
We might also say:
- Can you please share what’s coming up for you? I really want to understand.
- Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry… I see I hit a nerve, that wasn’t my intention. Please tell me what happened just then.
Then again, slow down, stop and really listen…
With this genuine, safe, and curious opportunity for the partner to pause and look inside, a misunderstanding can be prevented.
I Am So Excited! Why Aren’t You?
Here is another common scenario. Let’s say you are excited about an invitation to go away for a couple’s weekend with friends, and instead of the immediate agreement, your spouse might say they don’t want to go.
You feel disappointed, and yet you don’t share that feeling. Instead, you say:
- Why not?
- Why don’t you want to go away with me?
- Why can’t we ever do what I want to do?
- Why is it always your way?
So again, it makes your spouse wrong, and he/she becomes defensive. At this point, no matter what his/her reason, you won’t like it.
More Adjustments Without the Why, Why, Why.
It takes a great personal presence to sit with personal disappointment and make it safe to talk. You might say to your partner:
- Ok, I really want to go…and I hear that you don’t want to go.
- I would love to talk about this in more depth so I can understand.
- Can we both share our ideas?
And if he/she avoids that invitation, you might say:
- I know this is a sudden thing, so I suggest we take some time to think about it. Would that be ok?
- This trip means a lot to me, and I want to understand your feelings about the trip.
- I have a few hours before I have to give the final RSVP to my friends. I want to honor your personal timing. So can we revisit this after dinner (or first thing in the morning)? What timing can work for you?
Of course, you want your version to sound natural and friendly, and it takes practice. You may mess it up a few times. Don’t give up. It can get better. The reward is a faster repair once an automatic defensive rupture starts, and a greater connection between any type of rupture.
By Stacy Bremner, MA, RP