Conflict and anger in the relationship

For many people any expression of anger or frustration poses a great risk. The underlying fear often relates to notions around abandonment: ‘If I say something negative to you, you will not love me and you may leave me’. Most people have an inherent sense of unpleasantness when it comes to perceived conflict. Conflict itself is often viewed in very negative terms along the lines of doing battle and possibly getting harmed in the process. As a result conflict often gets avoided at all costs – the destructive potential seems too high. Couples who avoid conflict at all costs often sulk or avoid talking to each other. The fear of anger leaking out is so great that it’s less risky not to talk to each other. Another manifestation of anger and frustration that is unexpressed and turned inward can be depression. If the fear of abandonment is very high it may seem like a better (unconscious strategy) to keep quiet and hold the anger in.

The way you view conflict and your associated physical and psychological associations with it will largely depend on your earlier experiences in your family of origin. For most children watching their parents argue loudly will bring up fear: the fear that mum and dad may not love each other anymore and are therefore likely to walk away from each other and, ultimately, the child.

Relationships with other people will always entail an element of conflict; conflict is an unavoidable aspect of human relationships. We will have different and differing needs from our partner and this will lead to disagreements. Depending on what is at stake the degree of protest and frustration will be higher. The level of intensity is proportionately related to feeling of being unloved. Thus a partner who comes home later than agreed for a third night in a row can trigger intense feeling of neglect in the other partner related to frequently absent parent. A dirty plate in the sink not washed by one partner can conjure up memories of earlier wish fulfilment disappointments in childhood.

It is helpful to reframe your thinking about conflict. In and of itself conflict is not threatening. It is a means to addressing differing wants and needs in the relationship. It is also an opportunity to get your needs met. Conflict gives you an opportunity to step into your partner’s shoes and try to see the world from somebody else’s perspectives. Granted, this is not easily done when you feel wounded and hurt by your partner’s perceived lack of understanding of your own needs. Addressing your hurt feelings with your partner gives both of you a chance to get to clarify what has been difficult and to get to know each other better in the process. If a problem is addressed early enough it is much more likely to dissipate.

Partners who tend to avoid conflict in their relationships or who get into a passive aggressive patterns of silence, sulking and sniping at each other will need to both learn first of all to feel safe enough within their own skin to risk bringing up dissatisfaction in an open manner. If the fear of abandonment and associated risks are very high it is unlikely that either partner will engage in an open conversation about the difficulties in the relationship. Both partners will have to actively tune in with more awareness to the feelings that get triggered when feeling angry, frustrated or annoyed. What was the response to these feelings in childhood? How was conflict addressed in your family? Did you witness your parents resolve differences in a calm, constructive manner? How much talking about difficulties was done in your family? Answers to these questions will give you an insight into the way that you may approach conflict.

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Written by Angela Dierks, BA (Hons), MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)

I am a dedicated therapist and work with individual clients as well as couples on a range of issues. I hold an M.A. Integrative Counselling (with Distinction) and a Diploma in Couple Counselling and Psychotherapy am BACP accredited. I completed a BACP accredited Diploma in Clinical Supervision (CPPD) and offer supervision to other therapists.… Read more

Written by Angela Dierks, BA (Hons), MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)

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