Anyone who tells you that conflict does not happen in their relationship probably lives alone! Conflict is an inevitable consequence of two human beings coming together to attempt to form a relationship. It is not the issue of whether conflict will happen but more how it will be handled when it does. As a couples therapist, I see many examples of conflict resolution skills (or the lack thereof) and I am not immune to getting wrong myself in my own mostly wonderful relationship. However, it often amazes me that people simply find it difficult to learn from their mistakes and repeat the same patterns over and over.
We can talk long and hard about such factors as compatibility and conditioning, about upbringing and paternal and peer influence and of course, they all play a role. What couples fail to realise is that the bottom line is that if they cannot solve conflict successfully, the relationship will slowly implode. The sad thing is that couples tend to hang on to conflict long after they have forgotten what they were originally in conflict about, which could actually have been something very small. They miss that small window of opportunity they have to make a choice not to escalate the conflict or to deal with it in a functional manner. And it is really a choice.
Instead they tend to bring in other damaging behaviors in an attempt to be proved right and they bring nothing but resentment and anger. Many studies have suggested that latent resentment and contempt are the biggest predictors of divorce. I quote :
According to Marie Claire, after four decades of studying couples at the Gottman Institute, Dr. John Gottman found that harboring feelings of contempt or disgust towards a partner causes marriages to come apart at the seams. Of course, it’s natural for feel frustrated or even annoyed with your mate from time to time, but once feelings of disdain develop, you’re in unhealthy territory. “All relationships involve ongoing, perpetual problems that will resurface,” explains Gottman researcher Mike McNulty, Ph.D. “Partners who do not handle discussions of these problems well are at the most risk of divorce.”
In my experience, this resentment can be increased when some of the following behaviors are exhibited. It is by no means a comprehensive list but one which highlights a whole myriad of dysfunction.
Defensiveness : Like two boxers in the red and blue corners, they only meet in the middle to fight. Obsessed with defending their own point of view and proving the other wrong, this trait can prolong even the smallest incident into an earth shattering event. I have had these couples in therapy and it is very difficult to get them to see the damage they are doing to the relationship. There is no team spirit here. It usually only ends when one side backs down probably through utter exhaustion leaving resentment and contempt.
Point Scoring: Some individuals are very open and transparent concerning the mistakes they feel they have personally made. Good as this is, it is only functional when it is done for the right reasons. That is , it is a genuine statement. In some cases, it is used as a justification. So I have admitted my faults, let’s talk about yours!! In other cases, admitting fault is seen as a replacement for responsibility. Admitting something doesn’t make it right, only that you recognise what has happened. This is simply manipulation.
Silent Treatment : There are couples that I know who can shamelessly keep this particular “tool” going for as long as it takes to break the other one down. It is quite simply the least effective way to solve conflict. However, the concept is alive and well and thriving in many relationships. What does it say to the person on the receiving end? That you are not worth talking to…that you should go away and think about the whole situation and come back when you are willing to give in. It is ignorant, abusive behavior. Couples in conflict should be talking more (functionally), not less. However, silent treatment is not really about talking or not talking. It is about control and who really is the boss in the relationship.
Attaching Other Issues : These couples can really make a mountain out of a molehill. The smallest of conflicts can open up a Pandora’s box of accusations and assumptions from the recent to distant past and anywhere in between plus a few from an imagined future as well. Needless to say, this goes nowhere and the original issue is quickly forgotten.
None of the above are designed to successfully manage conflict. They are accusatory and finger pointing. Over time, they will erode the trust and respect in the relationship to the extent that it is no longer tenable. Apart from being stressful and exhausting, they also take up energy that could be used in a more positive way.
Only when couples truly work as a team and can rise above their own view of the situation and start to see that they are part of a team and on the same journey as someone else by choice, will they be able to grow.