I generally have many quarreling couples amongst my clients. You might say some couples are just like that. We all know some that seem to thrive on the tension that exists between them. From my point of view, this is often the norm. Most couples come into therapy because an essential element is missing in their relationship. This is often communication or the lack thereof but more often than not, it is about how they deal with conflict. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this factor is the determining element in the potential success of the relationship.
Nobody likes conflict and everyone has their own individual way of dealing with it. However, many believe that the fact that conflict exists means there is something wrong with them as a couple. Conflict is inevitable and exists in the best of relationships. It is a given. It is the way that couples deal with it that determines how bad it becomes. Read the sugary self-help books and you will be told that you can use conflict to better your relationship. In an ideal world, this might be true but insights generally only come with hindsight. In the very moment of conflict, it is hard to think about insight and improvement.
Couples often want to get the conflict over with as soon as possible or are interested in getting their point across… often at their partner’s expense or to the disadvantage of the relationship. I tell my clients that it really does not matter what couple type they are, what their conditioning is or what experience they have had, it is their responsibility to deal with conflict in a functional, respectful manner. Couples can choose to do this or not… they are both choices that couples can consciously make. I also show them that they have a small window of opportunity to deal with conflict effectively. By this, I mean that once conflict starts, there is a matter of a few minutes (in some cases as few seconds) to stop the conflict escalating into a bigger problem. Most couples can identify this window when asked. In therapy, we work on this window.
Many couples go into conflict thinking more about their partner’s reaction than how they personally can handle themselves. They fear an extreme reaction or even no reaction from their partner and it shapes their approach. They are usually thinking more about adapting to that than being an effective communicator. They sometimes are busy defending their position and point scoring to the extent that not much will work. What can truly help in this situation is a mindful, conscious attitude with concentration on the effective elements of communication. Respect, tone, language, honesty and calmness are all needed.
I teach them to go into conflict asking themselves basic questions of themselves:
- How do I want to handle this?
- What are my reactions telling me?
- What is the most effective way to deal with this issue?
- Am I communicating in an effective manner?
- Am I attaching other issues to this?
- Am I concentrating on the issue at hand?
- Are my listening skills being put to good use?
- Have we been here before and what happened?
- Am I using issues from the past to strengthen my argument?
- Do I need to take a break and come back later to discuss?
- Am I thinking about the big picture?
It is extremely difficult to be this aware in a moment of conflict where a natural reaction might be to attack or become defensive. As I said earlier, it is everyone’s responsibility to do this and it is a choice… the road less traveled. However, if two people can learn to extend the window of opportunity they have and learn to deal with conflict effectively, it brings a level of intimacy that can make a relationship.
Excerpt From: Dr. Nicholas Jenner Psy.D MA. “Our Quest for Happily Ever After.” This is a book I am very proud of and I am very happy to share it with you. It is a culmination of years of experience working with couples and teaches that we forget that the simple, fundamental things matter in a relationship. Happy Reading!
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