CONFLICT COMMUNICATION FOR COUPLES

Having worked with couples for over 20 years from both  Psychodynamic and Family Therapy perspectives,  I have identified enduring patterns that many, if not all couples experience, regardless of culture, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.  The following outline may provide you and your partner with some useful guidelines on how to work through conflict when it arises in your relationship. This is not meant to take the place of martial or couples counseling, but instead to provide some tools for healthy couples to better understand how and why conflict occurs between them and what to do about it.  

1:    Check Your Defenses

·        When conflict ensues and we feel we may be under attack, our Limbic System kicks our basic fight or flight response into high-gear. This can over-ride our higher intellectual functioning and access to insight and therefore counter our ability to work through conflict productively. We may counter attack with hurtful accusations or flee into sullenness instead of being able to listen closely and trying to clearly understand our partner.

·        Ask your partner for a brief time out to prepare for the conversation. In time, you and your partner will trust that the time out is not another way of fleeing the conflict, but a way to de-activate the Limbic System through deep breathing and cooling down.

·        Remind yourself that you and your partner love each other, and the goal is not to fight so that you win and your partner loses, but rather to communication toward a win-win outcome. When one partner loses, the result is emotional injury. On the other hand, when partners communicate to a win-win conclusion, it is the relationship that wins, effectively building muscle in the love affair.

2:    Check Your Anger

·        When we feel hurt by our partners, we feel vulnerable. We may get angry as a way to defend against feeling hurt. However, anger is rarely a primary emotion. Generally there are deeper emotions underneath that are so uncomfortable that our psyche triggers an anger response to defend against them. These emotions can include: hurt, embarrassment, shame, fear and confusion.

·        In order to prevent anger from derailing productive communication, you need to identify what deeper emotions have been triggered and to remain aware of them while you listen and communicate with your partner. This requires that you learn how to tolerate often painful, uncomfortable feelings while you communicate.

3:    Rules of Engagement

Assess Timing

  • It is important to assess whether you and your partner are emotionally ready to engage in productive communication.  If either of you are too angry to stop and think what other emotions might be under the surface, or to be able to actively listen to the other without being defensive, then it may be necessary for both of you to take a longer Time Out.
  • Communicating through a difficult conflict is often time consuming and may even take multiple attempts before you can reach a positive resolution. It is important to choose a time when you will not be interrupted, when other tasks are not pressing, so that you can devote as much time and energy as is necessary.

Listening Roles/Rules

  • Listening is the most essential element of good communication. Good listening entails being fully present while your partner is talking. This means that you are not formulating your response while your partner is talking, but rather listening solely to understand what your partner is trying to communicate.  You can take all the time you need when your partner is done to think about how you would like to respond.
  • Look intently into your partner’s eyes. When necessary, ask your partner questions that clarify what he/she is trying to say. (“What I hear you saying is… is that right?”)  Good eye contact and reflective listening communicates to your partner that you are seriously trying to understand without being defensive.
  • When your partner has finished and you have demonstrated that you have heard and understood through reflective listening, it is your turn to talk. 
  • Be careful to break down the larger issues into manageable bits of communication. If one partner talks for 30 minutes, it would be very difficult for any good listener to respond well.

 “I” Statements

  • “I” statements are a very simple, but effective tool for communicating about difficult issues as sensitively as possible. When we are angry we can have a tendency to make aggressive statements that only put our partners on the defense.  Instead, try to figure out what feeling is underneath your anger and use an “I” statement to express it. Consider the following examples.  If I were to say, “You piss me off when you don’t listen,” you might feel attacked and feel the need to defend yourself. This would stop you from listening to what I am really trying to communicate. However, if I were to say “I feel hurt when you don’t listen to me,” it might instead elicit a care-taking response and a better listening stance. The truth about the matter is that when one is angry, it is really more about an underlying feeling of hurt, shame, embarrassment, confusion or fear. Expressing anger instead of the actually root emotion is to argue about an irrelevant issue. If you and your partner do not feel safe enough to talk about the more vulnerable underlying emotions, you may need to discuss how you can first establish a necessary level of trust. If this proves difficult, you may need to seek out professional help.

Red Flag Analysis

  • We all have issues left over from our childhoods. No one of us had perfect parents, thus we have all come into this world wounded in some way.  Some examples of these emotional wounds include: having unmet dependency needs, having feelings of abandonment or annihilation, or experiencing feelings of shame.  All of these “wounds” can exist in people at various levels of severity. In some people, the wounds have been so traumatizing that they experience serious mental health symptoms that necessitate therapeutic intervention.  In most of us, they create emotional vulnerabilities that get triggered while interacting with the people we have let most deeply into our lives. I call these normal emotional vulnerabilities “Red Flag” issues. If we come to understand the nature of our vulnerabilities, we can start to deal with our life issues more directly by: 1) Becoming more aware of how they influence our reactions to our partners, 2) Sharing them with our partners so that they can be more sensitive to our issues, and 3) Reducing the amount of conflict that at first glance appears to be about a here-and-now issue but is really about our old Red Flag issues. 
  • Some of us may have unmet needs for dependency, especially if one or both of our parents expected us to grow up and become emotionally autonomous before we as children were ready. There are limitless ways that this can occur in peoples’ lives. A few brief examples are: 1) When both parents are required to work so much that they simply do not have enough time for their child, 2) If a parent simply doesn’t have the ability to offer the necessary level of nurturing that a child needs, and 3) When boys find that both their Mom and Dad enforce rigid gender stereotypes that requires them to act like “real men” when they are still just little boys.
  • Some of us may have fears of abandonment. This happens when we literally or symbolically lose one or both of our parents before we are ready. Life situations that can create fears of abandonment are also limitless. A few brief examples are as follows: 1) When parents get divorced, young children often assume it was because of something they did. Thus, they experience the divorce as being abandoned by one parent or the other. 2) When a parent gets ill for an extended period during a child’s important formative years, the child can experience it as an emotional abandonment. They simply do not have the rational adult abilities to understand it has nothing to do with them. Obviously, this can be even more serious when a parent dies
  • Some of us may experience fears of Annihilation. Children who grow up feeling threatened by violence may find themselves literally fearing for their lives. This can occur at a time when a child is too young to accurately assess the true level of danger in their lives. Thus, fears of annihilation can spring from real violence, or imagined violence that was feared but never manifested.
  • Some of us may experience intense feelings of shame. There is no end to the life situations that can contribute to this red flag. Being overly criticized as we are growing up is a very common example. Another typical example is having a visible, stigmatizing disability. One may grow up suffering the slings and arrows of childhood playground taunts that can severely damage self-esteem. And finally, we can have stigmatizing identity issues that cause us to internalize crippling levels of shame about our very notions of self. Women, people of color and gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people often suffer the oppression of society’s condemnation as second class citizens at least, or as evil sinners and criminals at worst.

4)      Post-Conflict Processing

  • Every time you communicate through a conflict, it is important to reaffirm your love and commitment to each other. It is important to demonstrate to your partner that your relationship will survive the tough times in life. Make sure you clearly communicate that even though you may be experiencing difficult or uncomfortable feelings and issues, that you still love your partner.
  • Even though you may have worked through one difficult conflict, you may be able to readily identify other areas that will require additional discussion. The ability to identify the important issues is great. However, don’t bite off more than you can chew at any given moment. Congratulate each other on the hard work you have done.
  • If you and your partner are having difficulty bringing your conflicts to a win-win resolution, you may want to consider seeking out some couples therapy. A professional, neutral third party will be able to offer you assistance in sorting out your red flag issues and help you learn the communication skills necessary to process through your issues on your own.
  • All relationships experience conflict.  All successful relationships require frequent, long conversations about the state and nature of the relationship. When worked through honestly, conflict can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of our partner’s unique humanity. It can also lead to a deeper, constantly maturing love and level of intimacy. It has been my experience that real intimacy in our committed, love relationships in the here-and-now can heal our old wounds from childhood. And finally, it can increase the amount of joy and meaning we experience, as well as contribute to our general feeling of safety and security in life.