Communication and Emotional Quicksand

Gwen Randall-Young

There is an interesting phenomenon that often occurs in communication when two people are having a disagreement. They disagree, of course, because each one has a different point of view. Ideally, the next step would be for each to express their own viewpoint, and really listen to understand the perspective of the other. Having done this, the next step would be to focus on solutions that incorporate the needs of both parties.

Too often the communication never gets to this stage. Rather, it becomes like a ping-pong game, in which the opponent’s opinions or comments are immediately rejected or tossed back. Frustrated at not being understood, each side becomes more intense, more vocal, perhaps even derogatory or insulting.

Somewhere along the way the initial subject of discussion is lost, and it becomes individuals battling with each other instead of arguing a point. At this stage additional points of contention, unrelated to the original issue, are thrown in at random, adding more fuel to an already out of control fire.

The participants are now entering into a zone that I call ‘emotional quicksand’. I use this term, because the more one struggles, the deeper one sinks. Let’s look at an example. A wife tells her husband that she is feeling stressed and overwhelmed. (She wants him to hug her, give her sympathy and ask what he can do to help.) Instead, he replies by saying that he’s just as stressed as she is and doesn’t need her stuff as well. This makes her feel even more overwhelmed and resentful. Or he comes home and says he had a hard day, and she replies that she’d trade jobs with him any day.

In both cases a request for support is rebuffed and replaced with the responders own concern. A teenager says he does not feel appreciated in the family, and a parent responds with a comment implying that if the teen did more, then there might be something to appreciate. In this instance there is both a rebuff and an added insult.

In all of these instances, one person is calling out, and their plea for understanding is shut down. Of course there will be hurt and anger, and the relationship deteriorates a little more. The more that the argument is debated, the worse everyone is going to feel. The more of these arguments they have, the more difficult it is to create a healthy relationship. The more unhealthy the relationship, the more likely it is to die.

Because it is so hard to get out of ‘emotional quicksand’, it is important to learn how to avoid it in the first place. Sometimes if you just stop the struggle for a bit, you can halt the downward process and find a way out. Other times, you need assistance in the form of professional help. The worst thing you can do is to continue the process that got you there in the first place.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning psychologist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books, CDs or MP3s, visit Follow Gwen on Facebook for inspiration.