Dealing with Conflict Constructively

Disagreement and conflict

It is normal and natural for couples to have disagreements. When disagreements turn to conflict it can be very upsetting. Some partners try to avoid conflict at all costs because they do not know how to handle it; but that doesn’t make it go away.

Disagreement turns to conflict when emotions of anger or fear are triggered. These emotions have virtually the same effects on the autonomic nervous system and typically give rise to the ‘fight or flight’ response. When this happens our rational brain function becomes flooded with stress hormones and it becomes very difficult to retain the ability to think and respond rationally. We are in evolutionary survival mode and we are trying to shut down or run away from whatever is stressing us. You will recognise the physiological responses: elevated heart rate, tension in the head or neck, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty skin and so on.

If you train yourself to recognise the onset of these physiological warning signs you may be able to avoid getting into conflict with your partner by calling for a ‘Time Out’. Calling Time Out is a recognition that a disagreement is escalating into conflict and that it is better to first calm down and return to the matter of disagreement later.

Clients often recognise some or all of the four patterns of behaviour that lead to or arise during conflict which psychologist John Gottman in his book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is because of their detrimental effect on relationship harmony. The Four Horsemen are Stonewalling, Defensiveness, Criticism and Contempt.

Stonewalling is where a partner refuses or appears to be refusing to engage in dialogue with the other partner. (It’s a ‘Talk to the hand ‘cos the face ain’t listening’ behaviour). Rather than calming a heated exchange, stonewalling has been demonstrated to add fuel to the fire because the partner who feels they are being the stonewalled feels so disrespected and frustrated.

Defensiveness is where a complaint or accusation is met with a counter accusation: ‘I only did that because you did xyz’. This can result in a ping pong match in which nothing is resolved but further resentment is generated because the partners are not listening to each other.

Criticism is a generalisation of a partner’s behaviour (such as ‘You always do xyz’; ‘You never do xyz’). As soon as your partner hears the words of criticism being levelled at them (for example, ‘always’ and ‘never’) they are likely to stop listening because they know it is not true, at least not all of the time.

Contempt is a personal attack on a partner’s character  such as insulting them, calling them names or using body language to indicate contempt.


Change the Conversation

When we have a disagreement with our partner it can be hard to understand why our partner doesn’t agree with us. After all, we are rational, reasonable and we’ve thought everything through haven’t we? In reality our point of view is only one point of view. Both points of view may be valid. Why are they different? It’s because we are different people.

Each of us is unique, with a unique personality based on a unique set of genes; we come from different families of origin where things will have been done differently; we have different experiences of life growing up; and each of us is autonomous which  we tend to forget about when we are in  love. Being in love is intoxicating; it is one of the best feelings in the world; we think of our beloved all the time and we want to spend every moment with them. We are endlessly fascinated with them and we don’t want to hear any criticism of them. We tolerate behaviours we might not normally tolerate because we see them as fun, charming foibles.

As our relationship progresses the intensity of those positive feelings starts to fade. It’s a natural and normal progression and it means that the relationship is entering  the maturing phase (which continues for long as we are together). Our sense of autonomy starts to return and things that used to irritate us before we fell in love start to irritate us again. Equally , we may have become busier in our careers, we may have children, we may have elderly parents relying on us. It becomes harder to stay intuitively in touch with our partner and it’s this weakening of being in touch that can be at the root of conflict.

When we are having a row we are not usually talking about our feelings. However it is in revealing our emotions to our partner that our partner understands what is really going on. If we say to our partner ‘What did you do that for? I told you not to do it’ it sounds like criticism and control which may generate a cross response and then a row develops. If, alternatively, we say to our partner ‘When you stay out late without telling me I get scared’ it’s a completely different conversation. It’s a conversation not so much about what our partner did but the emotion it evokes in us. Our partner cannot read our mind; but if we say what effect on our emotions a particular behaviour has it may give our partner a different understanding or a changed perspective which may in turn lead them to change their behaviour.


How Relationship Counselling Can Help

Counselling is about change but we can only change ourselves, not our partner. It is easier to motivate ourselves to change if we gain a changed understanding. In ACCORD Dublin our person centred counselling approach focuses on helping clients to identify and discuss  underlying emotions by bringing them to the surface. This is at the heart of changing our perspective, both in terms of reflecting on ourselves and on our partner. It leads to mutually better understanding.

A changed understanding greatly facilitates us in negotiating different behaviours with our partner. Negotiation is a healthy dynamic in a relationship. We can live the lives we want and have the kind of relationship we want by choosing to negotiate and by choosing together the actions and behaviours that will give us happiness and fulfilment.

Negotiating what each of us wants builds intimacy and strengthens the partnership bond. The better our relationship intimacy becomes the more we are able to progress from noticing our partner’s differences to tolerating them and, in time, to celebrating and rejoicing in them.