Conflict! A polite word for what many couples label their on-going, painful arguments that always end in the same hurtful, disconnected way. You feel it in the pit of your stomach or in the base of your neck every time you see your partner roll their eyes or storm out of the room in response to a comment you just made. You know the one! It guarantees an end to the latest skirmish but prolongs and deepens the growing bitterness between you. Sue Johnson, a psychologist and couples counselor who developed Emotionally Focused Therapy, refers to this habitual pattern of conflict as the couples negative cycle. Once the cycle takes over the couple become locked an escalating fight that usually ends in a draw with conflict resolution never being reached.
Popular advice to end the struggle ranges from platitudes to “just ignore it” to “you got to make them hurt to make it stop” keep the bitter pattern predominate force in communication. The default goal of conflict becomes to punish the other. Successful couples recognize the negative patterns their words and actions produce and work to change the script. The goal is to having the next conversation go better. How can the next fight go better? By recognizing what is happening both inside of ourselves and understanding through empathy what is happening for our partner.
What we frequently miss in conflicts is the message under the words and patterns of disconnect because we are so busy defending ourselves. Our central nervous systems are ready to step in and send us into fight, flight, or freeze at a moment’s notice. Often all it takes is one shrug of our partner’s shoulder or a misinterpretation of a brief comment to send us into our primitive, survival instinct stance. Our bodies and our brains stand at the ready to keep us alive! The problem with this that encounters with our partners become combat zones rather than comfort zones.
How do we turn this around? Start by having intentional awareness about emotions, body sensations, and actions. First towards ourselves and then towards our partners in times of conflict. A very effective initial step is to sit in a calm place and recall the last fight you had with your partner. Do you remember what caused your heart rate to increase or what led to that first flush or anger or fear? Once you identity it spend some time considering where this reaction originated. How old were you the first time you felt this way? What caused you to feel this way? Where do you feel it in your body? What message are you telling yourself about yourself? What message are you telling yourself about your partner? Be aware of your emotions and body sensations. If you feel it is just too much just set this exercise aside and come back to it later after you feel you have calmed down.
Once we have awareness of what happens to us in conflict we can begin to slow down or stop the conflict with our partner before it escalates into anger, fear, or disconnection. The very first place to start when you feel the emotions rising is to call a time out with your partner. A properly executed time-out request with give each person time to calm the central nervous system, reconsider the next words or gestures you plan to use, and then come back together in a spirit of problem solving and reconnection instead of defense, anger, and distance. Interested in how to effectively us a time out in conflict and still maintain connection? Watch for my next post: Maintaining Connection In Conflict.