For an audio version of this post, read by Dr Jenner, please listen here:
It is my own personal experience, and that of clients, that whoever you choose to have a relationship with, there will be conflict and a lot of it. The paradox to our usual thinking is that the more intense and close a relationship is, the more likely it is that troubled times will come. As humans, we are built that way. Anyone who tells you that there is no conflict in their relationship is either lying or not totally engaged. The key is how you handle it and whether you allow it to escalate. Because let’s face it, much of the conflict we have with our partners is about pointless things but we allow it to grow to include other pointless things and we often trigger from other experiences we have had. A good portion of it could be solved fairly easily if we just make it just so. If we stop the stonewalling and having to prove that we are right. This puts both partners in the proverbial red and blue corner slugging it out until the end. Add pride to the mixture and you have a lethal cocktail.
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Everyone has a conflict style and understanding that is the first step to making that style more functional. When I look at my own, I realise that I tend very quickly to escalate things. I always know this afterwards but often then it is too late. The window of opportunity has gone. Why does this happen? I recognised that a long time ago. When I get the hint of insecurity, long-held fear of abandonment (due to my childhood) takes over as I frantically try to get my point across. In effect, I am my child like self in the conflict instead of a mature adult who might handle things better. However, as with everyone else who manages conflict in a dysfunctional way, this is no real excuse and I, as with all adults who are mostly self-aware and self-conscious of our actions, hold a true responsibility to ensure that our own internal struggles do not project onto our partner or anyone else. Just doing this will help greatly because if this is happens, it will stop the cycle of guilt and shame that will inevitably start the next round. How this is achieved takes discipline and strong will.
How many of us can truly give up our position and look at things fairly and without pride and being triggered? How many of us can listen effectively to the true meaning of what our partner is saying? How many of us can see that some of what they are saying might be true? How many of us can forego tactics in order to gain the upper hand? I truly believe that not many of us can do this but this is essential and yes, conflict can really be a method of improving the way things are in the relationship going forward (as long as violence is not involved). This takes the form of looking at ourselves instead of looking at our partner. Essential is that we act in a respectful, calm manner in conflict and keep the well-being of the relationship in mind. Staying present and listening effectively avoids triggering and setting healthy boundaries instead of stonewalling and anger will certainly move the process forward.
If we can truly see conflict as a means of improving the basis of our relationships and manage it that way, then that is the way it will be. It is a choice and doing nothing and allowing escalation is also a choice, albeit that we might not see it that way at the time. The bottom line is… manage conflict effectively and your relationship will be in a place that you could not have imagined.
I generally have many quarrelling couples amongst my clients. You might say some couples are just like that. We all know some that seem to thrive on the tension that exists between them. From my point of view, this is often the norm. Most couples come into therapy because an essential element is missing in their relationship. This is often communication or the lack thereof but more often than not, it is about how they deal with conflict. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this factor is the determining element in the potential success of the relationship.
Nobody likes conflict and everyone has their own individual way of dealing with it. However, many believe that the fact that conflict exists means there is something wrong with them as a couple. Conflict is inevitable and exists in the best of relationships. It is a given. It is the way that couples deal with it that determines how bad it becomes. Read the sugary self-help books and you will be told that you can use conflict to better your relationship. In an ideal world, this might be true but insights generally only come with hindsight. In the very moment of conflict, it is hard to think about insight and improvement.
Couples often want to get the conflict over with as soon as possible or are interested in getting their point across… often at their partner’s expense or to the disadvantage of the relationship. I tell my clients that it really does not matter what couple type they are, what their conditioning is or what experience they have had, it is their responsibility to deal with conflict in a functional, respectful manner. Couples can choose to do this or not… they are both choices that couples can consciously make. I also show them that they have a small window of opportunity to deal with conflict effectively. By this, I mean that once conflict starts, there is a matter of a few minutes (in some cases a few seconds) to stop the conflict escalating into a bigger problem. Most couples can identify this window when asked. In therapy, we work on this window.
Many couples go into conflict thinking more about their partner’s reaction than how they personally can handle themselves. They fear an extreme reaction or even no reaction from their partner and it shapes their approach. They are usually thinking more about adapting to that than being an effective communicator. They sometimes are busy defending their position and point scoring to the extent that not much will work. What can truly help in this situation is a mindful, conscious attitude with concentration on the effective elements of communication. Respect, tone, language, honesty and calmness are all needed.
I teach them to go into conflict asking themselves basic questions:
How do I want to handle this?
What are my reactions telling me?
What is the most effective way to deal with this issue?
Am I communicating in an effective manner?
Am I attaching other issues to this?
Am I concentrating on the issue at hand?
Are my listening skills being put to good use?
Have we been here before and what happened?
Am I using issues from the past to strengthen my argument?
Do I need to take a break and come back later to discuss?
Am I thinking about the big picture?
It is extremely difficult to be this aware in a moment of conflict where a natural reaction might be to attack or become defensive. As I said earlier, it is everyone’s responsibility to do this and it is a choice… the road less traveled. However, if two people can learn to extend the window of opportunity they have and learn to deal with conflict effectively, it brings a level of intimacy that can make a relationship.
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Attack the problem…not each other!