Written by Crystal Bradshaw, LPC, NCC, Gottman 7 Principles Trainer
Conflict makes appearances in all relationships, successful, happy ones included. The key isn’t to avoid conflict, as many couples mistakenly try to do, it’s to navigate conflict successfully and repair as needed.
In order to do this, you only need one big shift in your current conflict strategy: Focus on the underlying emotion of the conflict.
Emotions are the result of:
the story we tell ourselves about what happens.
Typically when conflict arises, instead of reaching out for each other’s hand, couples who struggle with conflict tend to point fingers. They stop seeing their partner as their intimate ally and begin treating them as if they are the enemy. They blame each other for the problems in the relationship. This is erosive to the union as it slowly begins to destroy the emotional bond and eventually leads to greater disconnection, chronic fighting, and often the death of the relationship.
If you and your partner are having frequent conflicts, you have to get to the root of what’s going on, and address that.
Couples often get lost in the noise of conflict and miss what’s causing the noise.
When the source of conflict goes undiscovered, it will continue to find ways to resurface until it is resolved or breaks the relationship apart.
So, try to see what’s driving the conflict from underneath.
What’s Your Current Coping Strategy?
If you feel like you’re in a cycle where conflict seems to be dominating your relationship, you’re likely coping with relationship stress by utilizing emotion-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping is simply distress tolerance.
You’re doing what you can to manage the stress, not remove it. You find a way to live with it rather than eliminating it.
Instead, you need to be utilizing problem-solving coping. Problem-solving coping is where you identify the issue causing conflict and come up with an action plan for handling it.
Get Some Perspective
Often, in conflict, couples are missing each other in the pursuit of what “really” happened, i.e., pushing your own viewpoint at the expense of your partner's perspective.
Your experience is valid, BUT, are you able to see your partner's point-of-view? Can you view their complaints, concerns, and feelings as being linked to legitimate frustrations that they are experiencing within the context of the relationship and not see them as attacks against you or as a personal flaw in them?
The more you cling to the belief that what’s going on in the relationship is your partner’s issue, that something is their fault, or that it is your partner that needs to change and be different, then you will be less motivated to initiate change to alter the patterns between the two of you.
Seek To Understand
If you want to understand your partner's side, then you cannot be solely focused on your own experience.
Doing that will only create a reaction / reaction dynamic that will get you nowhere.
If you don’t want to collaborate with your partner, then problems will dominate your relationship.
You must be willing to momentarily suspend your side of things so that you can step out of a subjective mindset and inhabit another view of the conflict.
Own your emotions and make room for your partner’s emotions as well.
READ: ARE YOU HAVING AN EMOTIONAL AFFAIR?
Be Curious In Conflict
When you experience your partner seemingly upset, be curious as to why they are upset - rather than getting defensive and reactive. Then just listen.
He/she may have a hard time articulating what’s going on for them under the surface. They may not be able to put a word to it immediately, but they will be able to identify that something doesn’t feel right.
By listening to your partner, you can help clarify what might be going on for them. You can help them identify what they are reacting to, and then a conversation can shift to understanding why this is occurring.
If you feel like you’re being attacked:
READ: THE POWER OF A LUNCH DATE
Identify The Emotions Under The Conflict
Instead of trying to disprove each other and explaining to your partner how you’re right and all the ways they are wrong, try to hone in on the underlying emotions driving the conflict.
Identify the underlying emotions and the story attached to them, which is what the conflict is really about.
Ask yourself: What does this problem symbolize? What story, what meaning, does it have for my partner?
It’s Not About Napping
Partner A naps a lot during the day. This upsets Partner B.
Partner B has shared their concerns about the daily napping. Partner A doesn’t understand why this is an issue and feels that Partner B is nagging. As a result, Partner A has been crabby towards Partner B.
Partner B did some introspective work to figure out why napping bothered them so much. They identified their underlying emotions. Partner B shared with Partner A that the daily naps during the workday have created a sense of insecurity and taken away peace-of-mind.
The meaning attached to Partner A’s napping is associated with their recent history (Partner A lost their job). Partner B had legitimate concerns about Partner A possibly losing their new job as a result of napping during the day. So the emotions Partner A was dealing with was related to Partner B feeling unsettled.
Napping during the day seems like nothing to be upset about UNTIL you learn the meaning that is attached to it. There you find understanding, and from there you can work. Partner B’s issue with the napping had ZERO to do with napping, but rather the history and the narrative attached to the napping.
Partner A can ask Partner B to talk about their increased sense of insecurity and decreased peace-of-mind, and then address those fears by validating and reassuring Partner B. This couple can stop fighting about napping and use their energy to speak candidly about the underlying emotions and the story attached to them, in order to work collaboratively to reach a resolution.
Conflict Is Growth Trying To Happen
The hardest part about being a couple is learning to improve responses to problems that come up.
When we are responsible for our own emotions, we have the ability to influence our partners emotionally.
Remember, there are always two perspectives, yours is not the only one.
Problems take place in context. Try to see the emotion under the conflict and the story attached to it.
Attune to your partner's side of the story, suspend your defenses, be curious about what’s happening for them, focus on the underlying emotions of the conflict, and speak to those emotions.
By identifying and empathizing with your partner’s point-of-view, you are more likely to find a solution that honors both of you.
Photo Credit: Ashley Swenson Photo
"What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility."
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