How does conflict come up in your relationship?
Couples often arrive in my practice at the end of their tether, seething with anger and frustration as a result of entrenched conflict between them. Their arguments are bitter, relentless and toxic to the survival of the relationship.
Each partner is convinced of their reasonableness and the unreasonableness of their partner. Battle lines are drawn as both are ready to fight to the death over their principles. Attack, accusation and blame are the weapons of choice leading to emotional disconnection in their attempts to protect themselves. They know this dance off by heart and usually have a long back catalogue of examples to support their point of view.
Furthermore, they are hugely attached to their own pedestal of righteousness.
"He’s the problem!"
This comes over loud and clear in the session whether it’s said explicitly or not. And they would like me to fix their partner.
Getting couples to lay down their weapons and realise they both have to shift their perspectives is a key step towards diffusing the conflict. This cycle of attack and defence/retreat is often a well-trodden path and couples get caught up in the trap of wanting to win the argument. But at what cost? Would you rather be right or together?
Often the context of the conflict is of less significance than they may think. Whether it’s he spends too much time on his games console, or her spending is out of control, or he never cleans the bathroom or we rarely have sex anymore.
However, the problems usually represent more significant, underlying issues which are causing the conflict. These often come within three key themes in a relationship:
Power and control, respect and recognition, and care and closeness
For example, conflict over money may be down to power and control. Who controls the purse strings? Is there inequality in earning power? What, if any, agreements have the couple made about their finances? Perhaps one partner is at home looking after children and feels vulnerable to attacks made about spending; the other struggling with the financial burden.
Maybe one partner has started to feel invisible and ignored. Attention that used to be frequent and loving has dissipated. She spends all evening in front of the TV and then falls asleep on the sofa. Our sex life has disintegrated and I’m left feeling frustrated and resentful. The care and closeness in this relationship has decreased over time and one partner feels less loved as a result.
What is the underlying theme in your conflict?
It’s really helpful for couples to understand that their partner is not the problem – the conflict is. If we can start to understand the issues behind the conflict, couples can start the process of healing.
Central to this process is identifying the feelings in play here. Behind anger, there is often fear. A partner may react furiously to a large credit card bill – maybe they’re frightened about how they’re going to pay for it or feel disrespected by their partner for not having been consulted about the purchase. Frequently coming home late might leave someone feeling unloved and taken for granted.
When we start focusing on the needs of the relationship, we can start to see how conflict erodes our connection with each other and weakens our relationship. The patterns of conflict we develop will over time erode our emotional connection and become a stubborn block between us.
How can we start to dismantle this?
- Challenge your need to be right - how important is it? What are you trying to prove? Are you simply trying to get the upper hand?
- Hear your partner’s vulnerability. Are they scared, lonely, upset? What is behind the attack or withdrawal?
- Explain to your partner how you feel when they do X. I feel lonely when you don’t come to bed with me. Using ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ de-escalates the discussion.
- Can you move towards each other to resolve the conflict? You don’t have to agree with them but you will both need to shift your positions to arrive at a compromise. Can you put the relationship itself as your main priority? What needs to happen for the relationship to repair?
- Don’t underestimate the impact of external factors on your situation. Stress in all its forms -illness, money worries, family problems, work issues – all these affect how we show up in our relationship and it may be that these need to be openly acknowledged and discussed by couples.
- And while we are all experts on our partner's faults - remember why you are in this relationship – what attracted you to this person? What do you love about them? What are the positives about being in this relationship?
And finally, try focusing on the stuff that does work between you. We can analyse to death the problems in our relationship – but how about the bits that do work? When do you get on well? What are your successes as a couple? What activities usually have a positive outcome? Try putting in more of the good and see if the bad starts to feel less compelling.
Relationships take work and when we don’t work on them they don’t work for us. When you’re struggling, couples therapy can be a safe place to investigate what’s gone wrong and having a third party look at it from a different angle can be really helpful. Our romantic relationships are one of the fundamental pillars of our lives, and investing the time and effort in ensuring its success is one of the best investments you’ll make.