“Lets not forget it’s you and me vs. problem. Not you vs. me” -Unknown
If you have been in a relationship that has lasted longer than a few months, you will know that conflict and argument are going to be a part of it. It is just that way. Two separate individuals with different viewpoints and experiences, coming together to form a union is guaranteed to bring some friction. The only way this is not so is if one constantly avoids conflict but this is not sustainable. All couples can look to a good number of good times in their relationship but even a prolonged period without conflict can be ruined if conflict is handled in the wrong way. One client once said to me that three weeks of fun were wiped out by one hour of argument that neither handled effectively. Unfortunately, the “good” means very little if the “bad” wrecks residual feelings of security and health in the relationship. Of course, conflict itself is not the issue but the way it is handled can either improve or erode the relationship.
In my experience, only a few couples can stay in the moment and work together with a framework that solves the issue. This takes patience and a willingness to put triggers and insecurity aside. Most couples who come into therapy have got into a habit of conflict and ineffective communication which includes most of the following (not exhaustive):
- Silent treatment and emotional withdrawal.
- Rage and anger
- Defensive “point-scoring”
- Blame, counter-blame and “nagging”
- Bringing up past issues
- Victimhood and punishment tactics
- Avoidance of the “real” issue and allowing resentment to build
- Gaslighting, denying responsibility and playing down the importance of the issue
- Criticism and judgement
- To the extreme, physical violence
Additionally, most couples fail to understand the period leading up to conflict and fail to realise that this understanding could lead to better management of conflict. Once triggered, they find it hard to distinguish between a complaint, a criticism and a contemptuous statement. Look at the difference below:
- Complaint: (expressing unhappiness) “I am disappointed that you haven’t helped me more this week”
- Criticism: “It’s been really selfish of you not to help me this week”
- Contempt: As usual, I could not rely on you and you don’t notice the work I do for you. You are a jerk!”
Couples need a framework that is used consistently to be able to deal with conflict. This means set rules around timing of discussions, the need for space (which should always be expressed in terms of time), how they will discuss and what. It makes no sense to discuss a potentially explosive issue when emotions are running high so guidelines on “time-outs” are useful. This avoids “snappy” interaction which could easily escalate. Moreover, couples need to keep in mind the big picture of the relationship and stay solution-focussed.
I have often found that if couples get the timing of their conflict correct, they are able to reassure each other that they have each other’s backs, the relationship is not in danger (unless it is) and they are going into the process with the best interests of the relationship in mind. Too many couples try to deal with it quickly to get it over with, not realising that if time is taken, then what they feel about the interaction initially will die down and be replaced by more rational ideas.