I was having a tiff this week with a partner, and noticed some wicked crazy feelings rising up. Tension and strain turned to hurt and anger, which impacted my behavior and interactions with them. I reflected on the way that this plays out in the therapy room sometimes as well:
....a loaded phrase sparks a reaction, an emotion, a facial expression.
....a misunderstanding leads to a backbiting hurtful comment which snowballs
.... one person's perspective vastly contradicts another, a partner interrupts to correct missing the hurt being expressed
.... voices escalate as generalizations about motives, patterns and history spew forth
The pattern I see is intense emotion, impacting words and actions, creating more hurt and little common ground. Its a train heading to full blown relationship havoc.
Let's stop the train.
This train gets us no where, and resolution may come, but only after everyone has been scarred and left bleeding on the tracks.
The reason conflict is so toxic is most people don't know how to fight fair. Maybe you're the exception :) But from the many couples I work with, and people I know, conflict is hard and usually leads to more hurt after. The reason for this is conflict stirs our basic assumptions about who we are, our perspective on something, and our potential fear of blame/ shame or harm to your partner. We feel directly threatened, no matter how much love we have for our partners, and we move into the power stance. The power stance in battle allows you to prepare for blows and plan your counter attack. We seek to regain or shift power, to keep our footing physically and emotionally.
When we see it through that light, it seems ridiculous. Why do I want to attack my partner? I was defensive because I was accused of harm, and now I want to do more harm in response? But it's natural, and it's a tough pattern to shift.
What's the alternative? Don't just stop the train, get off the train altogether.
Conflict is generally an indicator of 4 potential scenarios:
1) A misunderstanding: seems simple but miscommunication accounts for a large portion of relationship conflict. How can you take a minute to consider your partner may have heard/ observed/ experienced something different from you?
2) A broken agreement: this can relate to chores, schedules, sexual fidelity or parenting activities. How can you clarify or change the agreement to meet everyone's needs?
3) Imbalance in power: Every relationship, no matter the format, has power imbalances at times. This can relate to who makes decisions about certain things, to who makes more money or who is more dominant in bed. When we talk about power explicitly, we can create more understanding and balance.
4) Differences of opinion, value system, or priority: This is a huge one. Every other person, is not you! I know shocking. But really, they come into the relationship with their own set of thoughts, feelings, experiences, values, and priorities which inevitably conflict with yours. Areas we see this most commonly include sex, money, parenting, time management, friend time vs. couple time, and gender norms. How much time do you spend talking about the differences in your values, opinions or history?
So getting off the train means first understanding what's underlying the banter. It's not generally about the issue at hand (ie: the laundry or the sex) but it's about underlying needs, ideas, and feelings related to the 4 categories. Second, share feelings (I statements about yourself!) and explore what is happening for you. Seek to have empathy with your partner's feelings (which requires you to listen to their feelings and words!!) before you seek resolution. If you both can see both sides, are heard and valued, the conflict is now a discussion, an exploration to a path that is acceptable to you both.
Hurt feelings happen, relationship strain occurs. But the more in tune you are to how you fight, the more successful you will be in feeling connected, loved and on the same path moving forward.