Conflict and Anger in Relationships

The process.

In a conflicted relationship the onset of hostility is usually stimulated by one of the recognised anger and aggression triggers proposed by Sanford Mabel (1994). The instigator of the hostility has one aim only and that is to force the other person into submission, this is done in a verbally aggressive way and sadly sometimes in a violent way. The behaviour process of anger and aggression is interesting because it appears in no way unique, it begins with….ends with…. And has a middle that comprises problems associated with cognitive dissonance, poor communication and reluctance to change. The trigger response is due to the inability to process information appropriately and quickly enough and the information concerned is embedded deep within the belief and values schema of the perpetrator, the flavour of the process is usually negative and fixed.

At this time there is a simultaneous action taking place within the unconscious usually around the area of attribution, the big players in the defensive team, denial, projection and blame swing into action. The primary role of these defence mechanisms is to protect the perpetrator from further attack by insisting that he is not to blame and by projecting the blame onto the other person. Once a sound defensive position has been established then preparations for attack can begin. The attack comes very quickly with no thought of consequences, collateral damage, harm caused, in fact at this point of arousal there is little or no thought going on at all. We are extremely close to the explosion phase of anger now.

This is the time to escape to get out of the situation, for some it is possible, for many not.

Control techniques by this time have either been tried and have failed or the opportunity has been ignored or missed. There is only one action to take ESCAPE

The alternative of course is very familiar, remember? You go to battle, you leave casualties, you feel ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty after the downward spiral of course, you are now feeling the pain of remorse, and it gets too much to bear. The only way you know how to deal with this psychological pain is to erect your defences again. Once more denial takes centre stage, minimisation creeps in ‘I didn’t get that angry’. You may even apologise for your latest rage, you make promises, ‘It won’t happen again, I’m going to get some help’, of course this isn’t news to your partner, they’ve heard it before, remember. What they really want is action, not words.

So you decide to seek help, you may buy a self-help book, even a DVD; you may go to your GP who may refer you to your local voluntary mental health support service. You may book a session with a practitioner, a therapist or a counsellor. Whatever action you decide on you have got to be sure you know what you are getting involved in. Behaviour change is possible, but there are no quick fixes. How old are you?...... Well it’s taken that long to develop your theories and practices. It’s taken as long to construct your belief and value system, don’t think you can change it overnight, even if you do subscribe to the view of Einstein, ‘The kind of thoughts that have got you where you are today are not going to get you where you want to be’, you are going to have to change the way you think, and change the things you think about. That of course is going to be difficult because we all have an inbuilt resistance to change, it comes with the package. We have to look at our paradigms and shift some of them; this is all going to take time. We can manage change if it is in small incremental stages, we can’t manage big chunks, too difficult. Of course once we do begin to make the changes we want them to happen quickly and we want recognition, well don’t hold your breath.

So that’s the process, that’s what happens, question now is surely, why does it happen? And why so frequently?  

We mentioned our belief system earlier; well that’s where we keep our practiced scripts for dealing with particular situations. The trouble is that they well have worked for some time but eventually we get sussed, we meet someone who is not prepared to accept our script activated behaviour and they want us to change, or suffer the consequences. If we are smart we will listen and do something about it………..eventually. If we are not prepared to change, then get on with you lonely stress ridden existence.

 Why does it happen?

It begins with a look or a word and immediately a connection is made with the part of the psyche that deals with feelings, things stir very quickly, confusion blinkers rational thought. Unsure of what to make about the situation, we revert to the old tried and tested theories, which immediately inform us that someone is having a go at us, we are under attack, we immediately raise our defences because we are fearful that we are going to lose control of the situation. We attribute blame, we make false assumptions, and we complete an introspection assessment and decide that the other person is wrong, nothing to do with us of course. All these thoughts are faulty, we can’t help it, we are under pressure, we do what we have always done, and we attack.

We are not very good at understanding why we do things, but we keep trying to make sense of it and we do tend to believe the theories that we have developed, right, wrong, good or bad.

When we are observing someone else’s behaviour we tend to explain it in internal terms, personality, motives and abilities instead of external situational factors, this of course is flawed because we may know very little about the other person, so we make assumptions. When we look at our own behaviour we always consider external factors, so it’s always someone else’s fault.

The major contributor to conflict in relationships is the inability of one or other in the relationship, to communicate effectively. It’s not rocket science, try listening more and better, and really try to understand what your partner is saying and more importantly, how they are feeling and stop chopping and stopping the conversation. Do it and notice the difference. Remember some basics, everyone is entitled to a view or an opinion, you don’t have to agree with it but pick your moment to discuss the differences. Don’t try to impose your views on others, it called bullying. They are your views keep them, or better still modify them, if they keep getting you into trouble.
Remedies and Therapies.

If you have loads of money and time you may want to go see a psychoanalyst. You will be taken back to early childhood where the problems began, of course much of the memory by now is repressed away in your unconscious, so it needs recovering. This is a task for an expert, the therapist is the expert. Sigmund Freud the founder of psychoanalysis inferred that events from childhood could have a significant effect on adult behaviour, he explained that behaviour was determined by our unconscious mind and that the mind was like an iceberg and that only the tip is observable as conscious behaviour. Freud and his followers used ‘Free association, dream analysis and slips of the tongue’ in order to access the unconscious.

You may prefer working with a cognitive behavioural therapist. Behaviourists believe that behaviour is learned and John Watson an American psychologist in 1913 proposed that psychologists should study observable behaviour and not the mind or consciousness. He suggested that the theoretical goal of this objective approach to behaviour should be to predict behaviour and subsequently control behaviour. Behaviourists believe that people and animals for that matter are controlled by their environment and by what has been learned existing in that environment. What is proposed here is that we have learned our behaviour by association and that in some way we have become conditioned to respond in certain ways due to the effect of our environmental conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapy concerns itself with the here and now; it is very focussed and is relatively short term. The values of this approach are based on an open minded approach, on integrity, thoughtfulness and the ability to have a clear vision of the value of exploring alternative beliefs and understandings.

Another more popular force in therapy is the client centred approach based on humanistic theories; some of the early architects of Humanism were Maslow, Rogers and Rollo May who was an existential psychologist. Humanists believe that humans are inherently good; the approach focuses on personal values, the meaning of life and personal responsibility.

Carl Rogers is perhaps the best known humanist; he developed his ‘client centred ‘therapy’ in the 1950’s. The approach tends to discount the medical model and instead concentrates on human pathology, the therapeutic process will explore the healthy aspects of a client’s existence. This approach would appeal to someone who wants to retain a degree of control over the direction and pace of the therapy and of course the content. They do not want to be guided as in some of the other approaches. Clients are treated with respect and unconditional positive regard. Anyone suffering from low mood, hopelessness, stress and poor relationships may find this approach beneficial.

Whatever you decide to do, which ever approach you choose, remember this, ‘If you do nothing then nothing changes’

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN11
Written by Steve Earlam, MSc Psychotherapy. Addictions Counsellor and Behaviourist
Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN11

I am a Drug and Alcohol Recovery Specialist and a Behaviour Change Practitioner. I provide support for the management of anxiety, depression and PTSD conditions. My role is to work with you in adjusting your behaviour, your relationships and yourself. Your role is to learn, process, apply and practi...

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