For many years I have provided couples therapy. Generally, at the heart of most committed couples who come to see me, are the challenges of not knowing how to maneuver around conflict. When couples first meet, each of them could do no wrong. There was often a higher degree of empathy and tolerance within the relationship.
As time goes on, as empathy wains, and the familiar set in, tolerance and the need to understand your partner becomes less important. What seems to become more important is the need to be “right”. Being “right” and being “heard’ by your partner as being right only leads to a Win/Lose scenario.
Win/Lose Scenario: Fight or Flight
Couples who get stuck in the Win/Lose scenario find themselves doing one of two things: they either “Fight” or Flight” from the conflict.
With the “Fight” scenario, winning and being heard lead to behaviours of talking over their partner, interrupting, and eventually yelling and if all else doesn’t work, less helpful behaviours arise such as name calling, projecting blame and the list goes on and on.
For the “Flight” response, your partner will withdraw from the disagreement, leading to internalization of emotions and thoughts that only seem to resurface down the road in another casual conversation where you least expect it, and then BAM, you’re right back into the conflictual issue again.
Fight or flight responses only lead to Lose/Lose scenarios either way. They lack empathy and validation for each persons’ perspective. When I sit with couples, I have each of them take turns at individually expressing their concerns or issues without the partner interrupting, disputing or arguing – it is powerful.
It’s Not About Being “Right”, It’s About Being “Effective”
Having the receiving partner of the concern only listen as accurately as they can for “what” and the “emotional experiences” of their partner leads to intentional empathy of their experience.
Once the partner has completed expressing the emotional contextual fullness of their issue, the receiving partner now communicates back to the partner, presenting concern of what they were trying to express contextually and emotionally and the struggle they experience.
Once the person with the concern feels fully heard for the content of their concern and their emotional experience attached to this, validation and empathy can be experienced. Then, the receiving partner has the opportunity to have the same experience in being able to share their concern and be fully heard, uninterrupted, and validated with empathy in the end.
This process leads to an approach that is not about “winning” but instead about being “effective”. Being effective is about supporting a process that imparts empathy and validation of your partner’s experience with a genuine interest in wanting to understand the struggle your partner is experiencing.
Keys to being effective when in conflict with your partner are:
Use active and accurate listening skills for “content” and “emotions” being expressed
Be authentic and real – don’t pretend to understand what you frankly don’t understand
Set realistic and reasonable boundaries as boundaries do create safety
Reflect on your part of the conflict and role you are responsible for – especially if it is a repeating conflict
Be aware of your physical gestures and presentation – looking angry and intense does not create an environment for resolution nor safety to your partner
Be patient as conflicts do lessen in intensity with time
Allow your partner to feel and experience your “want” for resolution
Manage your impulses at all times and become intentional in remaining calm
Be able to effectively communicate back to your partner, with accurate completeness of what they are feeling and struggling with, evaluate the situation to ensure your partner feels heard and understood, especially emotionally
Remember the importance of empathy and validation at all times
Be well Ian