It’s hard for couples to recall what happens in their communication that leads to a serious argument. Influential couples therapist and author, Dan Wile, defines the five levels of attack in his book After the Fight. Wile’s levels of attack explain why it’s challenging for couples to resolve disagreements and can help you understand how the different levels of attack set you on a path towards major arguments.
Level 1: Critiquing behavior
A level 1 attack is when you say something is wrong with what your partner does. An example could be, “you never express your feelings” or “the way you act when you’re with your friends drives me nuts.”
Critiquing your partner is an attack. It’s second nature to get defensive when we feel attacked. It’s the rare person who can say, “you’re right, I do act like a jerk when I get around my friends. I’m sorry.” It would be great if your partner could do this, but you know how hard that can be. For the sake of your relationship, consider a new approach.
Don’t just blame. Give your partner information that they can use and tell them what you want.
This might sound like, “when you get around your friends, you often ignore me. “I’d like to feel included no matter who you are hanging out with.”
Level 2: Critiquing feelings
When you tell your partner how they should feel or imply something is wrong with how they feel, you are critiquing their feelings. This can sound like, “you get too upset about the smallest problems” or “you’re so angry all the time.”
We understandably get upset when our feelings are criticized. When someone tells us how we should or shouldn’t feel, it’s frustrating and invalidating.
A better option is to take notice of your partner’s feelings. Rather than implying something wrong with them, ask why they feel that way? Be curious about their experience and give your partner the space they need. Often when our feelings are acknowledged, they change.
Level 3: Critiquing character
This can sound like, “you’re a jerk” or “you’re immature.”
Statements like these go beyond other levels of attack because instead of saying something is wrong with your partner, that goes straight to who they are.
The person on the receiving end of your attack will understandably be upset. Demeaning messages from the person who is supposed to love them unconditionally will do serious damage.
Healthy and rejuvenating relationships are free of name-calling. Otherwise, we cannot feel emotionally safe with our partner, and intimacy will suffer.
Level 4: Making interpretations
This is when you tell your partner that they aren’t mad at you. They are furious at their parent because of their childhood. Or that they aren’t upset with you. They are mad at their boss. Or any number of explanations you come up with to not have to look at your contribution to the problem. Making interpretations is passing blame to avoid working on your relationship.
While it may be true that your partner did have a bad childhood or a bad day at work, it doesn’t mean that something you are doing isn’t really triggering your partner. Even if your partner is carrying around emotional baggage (aren’t we all?), it’s not your place to make interpretations or act as their therapist. Leave that to the professionals. Instead, try to find validity in your partner’s behavior and look at how you are likely contributing to your partner’s feelings and possibly even provoking them.
Level 5: Critiquing intentions
This is when you tell your partner they are doing something for the wrong reasons. For example, you may say, “you are acting this way because you like when we have conflict. Essentially you are saying that you know your partner’s reality better than they do.
At the same time, you are sending the message that their intentions are bad. It can be very frustrating when we try to express ourselves, and someone tells us that they know our real intentions better than we do.
If you do feel that your partner truly has a blind spot when it comes to their emotional baggage and that they are acting out their stuff with you, then you might want to try saying something like, “I’m baffled. Are you feeling this way because it reminds you of something from your past? Remember that you may be neglecting how your behavior triggers your partner. In that case, see my blog, Do You Know Your Triggers?
Additionally, make sure you are not setting your partner up to be triggered into past trauma. If your partner has trust issues due to being cheated on, don’t be secretive with your phone or email, and don’t cheat! If your partner grew up feeling abandoned, don’t threaten the relationship whenever you get frustrated.
Aim to be a healing presence in your partner’s life. We all have sensitivities based on our emotional wounds from the past. It’s healing to have a partner who tries to work with us on those raw spots.
If you and your partner can’t find your way out of these negative patterns on your own, find a good marriage and family therapist in your area who can help. Here’s an excellent resource to help you navigate finding a therapist.