I spend a fair amount of time watching couples fight in my office. I'm observing HOW they fight, and I'm listening for the UNMET NEEDS that underpin the conflict. Commonly, I see blaming, defensiveness, bringing up old issues, and a circular pattern where partners get caught in a loop of repetition and escalation. If resentment or contempt show up, I start to worry about the damage that has already been done, and I may start to lose hope that there's enough connection and motivation for the couple to engage in the significant repair work that's required for the relationship to survive.
Fortunately, there is a simple way out of these unconscious patterns.
It is easy to get caught up in these pitfalls. And they all result from a rigid adherence to our own perspective. This is the result when our primary focus is to be UNDERSTOOD. Being understood is important, yes; but seeking first to UNDERSTAND will create connection with our partner as well as progress in the conflict.
We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying you should be codependently focused on your partner and abandon your own feelings and needs. That is a perfect recipe for building resentment. I am, however, suggesting you set your perspective off to the side for a moment while listening to your partner's experience. Start by showing up with an attitude of openness. Reflect, validate and agree with what you can of their perspective. Clarify any misinterpretations. Take responsibility for your part. Apologize if appropriate. Ask, "What do you need from me?" and listen to the answer. Show a willingness to step outside of your own experience and step into your partner's experience. Employ what Tony Robbins calls "Humble Power", remembering that it takes great strength of character to release the ego. This is what creates true partnership.
Then magic happens, the wall between you starts to melt away.
When your partner feels heard and understood, s/he will be more open to hearing and understanding your perspective. When communicating your own feelings, needs and desires, get in the habit of using I Statements and being aware of your tone. Work at staying away from "you make me" language, blaming, shaming, puts downs and threats of abandonment. Learn and practice tools to REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS.
It is also very important to make an agreement with your partner that you will disengage from conflict whenever things begin escalate. Learn to work together to contain conflict. Be sure to re-engage, but only when you have both had enough time to calm yourselves down. Then take turns listening and sharing and work together at solving the problem. Take both partner's needs into account when negotiating a solution.
Couples' problem-solving ability is a critical factor in any relationship's happiness and longevity. Life involves stress -- no one is immune -- and we are going to have to deal with the consequences of our choices. Things are not always easy, but we make them harder when we allow our stress to run the show. What happens next is we react to our partner, and set off a chain reaction of triggers and escalation. The power struggle ensues. We forget we are on the same team.
We need to change our conflict paradigm.
We've all been raised with the WIN/LOSE paradigm of conflict. It is reinforced in the sports we play and watch; it is reinforced in stories, books and movies where there is a protagonist and a villain. And for many of us, it has been modeled in our homes growing up, and reinforced in the homes we create. In the WIN/LOSE paradigm of conflict, there is a clear winner and a clear loser. That works in football, political campaigns and courtrooms, but not in relationships, where we are trying to create enough connection and harmony to bridge us into old age. In order for that to be possible, we need a new conflict paradigm, one that in the end, strengthens both parties, and the relationship itself.
It often goes overlooked that conflict has a capacity to strengthen a relationship if it is handled in a certain way. Conflict can be constructive or destructive; most of us, because of our programming and experience, only associate conflict with destruction. Makes sense that so many of us are conflict avoidant, right?! But destruction is only one side of the coin. If we can harness the strengthening potential of conflict, we can truly transform our relationships, ourselves and our lives.
What does constructive conflict require?
1) Personal responsibility - for our actions, our words and our emotional state. Don't wait for your partner to do it first; focus on keeping YOUR side of the communication clean.
2) Keeping the bigger picture in mind - don't win the battle and lose the war! Remember to care for your relationship if you want it to last. It's hardest to do this when it's needed most.
3) Approach conflict with a WIN/WIN attitude. Believe and search for the agreement or solution that meets both partner's needs.
4) Self awareness - know your patterns and triggers and what put them there. If you don't know what this means, get some counseling to identify and heal old wounds.
5). A toolbox filled with interpersonal skills is also needed: emotion regulation skills, effective communication skills and negotiation skills.
6). An attitude of openness and flexibility - Rigid adherence to our beliefs, assumptions and perspectives is not conducive to building a harmonious relationship. See #4.
7). Boundaries - knowing your limits, your negotiables and your non-negotiables. Saying yes when you mean it, and no when you need to. This is how to avoid building resentments.
A WIN/WIN is achieved when both parties' needs are acknowledged and met by the solution.
An example from my office illustrates this beautifully. A couple is struggling because the wife recently became estranged from her husband's family. Their young daughter was hurt when her in-laws were watching the child and the wife lost trust in their ability to keep her safe. Although the child is OK, the experience rattled everyone, and the wife and her in-laws have not been able to resolve what happened. Her husband rationalized that the chance of another accident is minimal, and argued that it's OK for them to watch the child. He feels caught between his wife and his parents, and he fears his family will not be able to spend time with his daughter and continue developing a relationship with her.
The wife needs SECURITY in knowing that that their daughter will be safe. The husband needs to share continued CONNECTION between his parents and his child. Once we processed through the blow by blow, he said/she said, a deal was negotiated: They found a day care for the daughter for when they are both working, and the husband's parents can spend time with their granddaughter as long as he is present. Although there is more repair work to do between the wife and her in-laws, she is not interfering with her child's continued relationship with the grandparents, because her need for SECURITY in knowing that her child is in safe hands is met. And the husband's need to share continued CONNECTION between his parents and child is met.
What about the ongoing estrangement between the wife and her in-laws? That is the next step: identifying her needs and theirs, and negotiating a resolution so that all parties can move on. Certainly the husband's and daughter's needs should be factored in as well. Relationships and people are complicated. Conflicts can be multi-layered and it may take time to tease them apart. This is why it's so important to engage in conflict as calmly and consciously as possible.
If you want your relationship to be healthy and to last, start with truly listening to your partner and identifying the feelings and needs being expressed. Share your own feelings and needs, and ask your partner to truly listen. If the two of you just can't seem to get there on your own, don't hesitate to reach out to a helping professional who can facilitate.
If this article resonates, share it with your partner! Make an agreement that you will both make an effort to approach conflict constructively rather than destructively. When we can do that, everybody wins. :)