Every relationship experiences conflict on some level and in most cases, it is an opportunity for greater self-awareness, compassion and understanding.
With greater awareness conflict can actually be used to help couples come together rather than grow apart. It is important to know, however, the types of conflict to look out for, which pose more of a threat to your relationship in the long term. In this way you can start addressing any underlying issues and take the necessary actions to put a stop to conflicts that are not serving you, your partner or your relationship.
Conflict itself is not wrong!
Whilst conflict is generally uncomfortable it is not wrong per se, it is part of life.
We are all human beings with emotions and life can throw all kinds of curve balls at us that result in us feeling stressed, overwhelmed and under pressure. It is easy to get irritated in the heat of the moment especially when we are tired, or our partner does not seem to understand what we are trying to convey. It is always the person closest to us who generally bears the brunt of our disappointment or frustration.
The problem, however, is when certain types of conflict keep on reoccurring and we end up consistently feeling hurt or upset.
Types of conflict to watch out for
Certain types of conflict can be more destructive than others and are thus a red flag that should not be ignored. Relationship expert John Gottman has shown in his research that the existence of ‘The Four Horseman’ listed below are pre-indicators of a marriage ending in divorce.
- Criticism – pointing out your partner’s mistakes and perceived weaknesses or flaws.
- Contempt – being downright nasty, disrespectful & talking down to your partner.
- Defensiveness – where you feel that you must protect your perspective or opinion regardless of its validity.
- Stonewalling – where one or both individuals literally withdraw and refuse to speak to each other for a period of time.
In the above examples, there is a failure to try and understand the other person’s experience and be open to an alternative perspective. The ability to see another viewpoint paves the way for compassion and understanding and the capacity to offer such understanding has the potential to dissolve a conflict within a matter of minutes.
The presence of any of these four behaviours is also an indication that one if not both individuals are being avoidant. They are being avoidant because they are holding their partner responsible for their own emotions rather than fully admitting to themselves that they are the one who is ultimately responsible for how they feel.
One of the most important things to realise about conflict is that it can actually be dissolved quickly and effectively if both partners are taking full responsibility for their emotions, thinking and behaviour.
The existence of reoccurring conflict indicates the absence of power!
When reoccurring conflict is the norm and you are consistently experiencing hurt, pain or frustration and anger, what is really happening is that you are giving away your power to your partner. Your response suggests that you believe you are unable to change your reaction and your feelings and thus your partner has been given the power to dictate your levels of happiness and fulfilment in that moment.
The idea of giving your power away is not a conscious act or thought. However, when we find ourselves triggered emotionally it is often easier to blame external situations or our partner as opposed to admitting how we really feel or that we could have responded in a healthier manner.
Our society generally encourages us to value certain emotions over others, with an emphasis on feeling positive or being happy. Similarly, many people have grown up in families where negative emotions are viewed as ‘bad’ and are brushed under the carpet. It is hardly surprising therefore that we suppress, deny, or negate our more difficult emotions.
The trouble is, whilst we want to feel in control and to feel better, we usually feel at a loss or powerless to be able to do so. This is how thoughts or comments such as ‘If only my husband/wife would understand me (i.e. change) then everything would be okay’ arise.
There is truth in the fact that life would certainly be easier if your partner would make more effort to understand you. However, until you start to make a greater effort to understand your partner too, as well as taking more responsibility for your own responses, then you will always be looking to them to be a perfect human being, which of course is not possible or realistic.
Why conflict is a form of avoidance
Conflict can thus be viewed as a form of avoidance. It is avoidance of taking full responsibility in general and it is also avoidance of being truly honest and vulnerable with your partner (and yourself) in the moment. When we start to change how we respond during and after a conflict and do so with maximum responsibility, we start to take back our true power to create more harmony, connection, and freedom in our relationship.
It is of course not necessarily easy to suddenly switch from being triggered emotionally and wanting to fight your corner, to owning up about your feelings or behaviour in a vulnerable way. We are conditioned to protect ourselves and many of us have a fear of being rejected because this has been a reality for us in our past to some degree. Thus, it makes a lot of sense as to why we can end up in arguments where both parties are intent on being ‘right.’ To admit our true feelings might be associated with being inadequate, weak, or overly sensitive, especially if these were the messages that were handed down to us.
The trouble with avoiding what is really going on is that:🔹it tends to end up creating more conflict and tension.🔹it can be a sign of passive aggression i.e. mismanaged anger issues.🔹it is actually an act of selfishness (albeit unintentional i.e. trying to protect oneself).🔹it does not allow for open, healthy communication and finding a way to move forwards.🔹it is a sign of perfectionism – trying to get it ‘right’ and thus fearing getting it wrong if you speak up.Tips on how to transform conflict for good.
It takes bravery and courage to accept full responsibility but if you can start putting this into practice it actually puts you in a position where you are demonstrating a sense of being empowered rather than being a victim.
Ideally, we would all benefit from owning up to what we are really feeling in the moment the conflict is taking place. However, this takes time and much awareness. It is never too late to come back to your partner after the initial tension has calmed down. This is why I tell my clients that the fact they are experiencing conflict itself is not that important (unless it is abusive). The most important thing is the ‘repair’, which refers to how they deal with what has happened after the conflict.
What a ‘repair’ might sound like
You can say something like “I realise that I was actually feeling anxious about xyz during our argument and I didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety” or “I didn’t handle that conversation at all well. I can see now that I was frustrated because I didn’t feel I was being listened to. I ended up being defensive as a result, which I know didn’t help.”
The important thing here is that we are owning our response and demonstrating that it is not our partner’s responsibility to fix us. At the end of the day we are the one’s who are fully responsible for our emotions, even if something our partner has done has triggered us initially.
It is okay to feel frustrated, angry, sad, hurt or any other uncomfortable emotion, but we must endeavour to acknowledge these emotions in ourselves. We are human beings with emotions after all. Sometimes it is just a case of giving ourselves the time and space to allow the emotion to move through our system and to be willing to love and accept ourselves regardless. This is how we become more adept at not letting our emotions rule us as well as being able to show compassion for our partner’s human experience at the same time.
Conflicts are an opportunity for growth and learning
Finding yourself in the midst of an argument and triggered by your partner is not the end of the world therefore. It is okay to get things ‘wrong’ and be messy in love at times. I always like to view these situations as opportunities for learning how and where we can take greater responsibility over our life experience.
The existence of conflict is an opportunity to become more aware of why you are responding in the way that you do. With this greater awareness you are then in a better position to able to adapt your thinking, behaviour and communication in order to either stop the reoccurring conflict from happening again in the future or to help you repair in a more healthy manner, which will tend to reduce the likelihood of that conflict reoccurring again in any case. .
If you would like to learn more about taking responsibility in your relationship or marriage I encourage you to sign up for my Free E-book below.