Conflict is Normal
Successful Couples Understand That Conflict Is Normal
And learn skills to solve problems together.
Kate Feldman, MSW, LCSW
Conflict Between Partners Is Part Of Being A Healthy Couple
As a couples therapist I encounter the intimate details of people’s lives in relationship. I am privileged to be included in the dust of daily struggle that two people committed to loving often unexpectedly find themselves. Couples struggle for a variety of reasons. The research shows us that the subject matter is most often the same: money, kids, sex, housework, in-laws and leisure time. But we also know that couples that stay together happily for the long haul don’t disagree about these issues any less than couples that split up. The difference is in how they handle their differences and how they use skills to build long-term happiness and satisfaction. Successful couples understand that conflict is natural and learn to build mutual trust, which enables them to work through disagreements.
Couples often avoid conflict in the early stages of relationship because the feeling of being in love is so delicious and it hides some of their obvious differences. When we’re in love, we feel like we agree on everything. Later, when conflict arises, many of us don’t have the skills to handle it so we avoid it. Or we try to deal with it and somehow the result feels so unsatisfying or counterproductive that we shut down. Unfortunately, the number one predictor of divorce in our culture is the habitual avoidance of conflict. Yet most couples avoid conflict because they are afraid it will cause divorce.
Each Of Us Is Different; We Have Our Own Unique Perspective On Things
When two people make a long-term commitment in a relationship they don’t promise to agree all the time. Giving up your own opinions or feelings is not part of your commitment vow. When a couple has a disagreement it’s because both partners care deeply about the topic of the conflict. The differences we bring to our relationships are our individual uniqueness, our personal history, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. Of course we’re going to “fight” for what we hold so dear. Commitment to living with and loving our partner is about embracing difference and change. Everyone changes; everyone has unique personal values, opinions, and feelings. Successful partnerships are those in which both people care as much about the world of the other as they do about their own. This means taking time to listen to, and learn about whom your partner is. It means allowing yourself to be influenced, or impacted by their point of view. It means slowing down in your communication so you can mix the richness you each bring to your “twosome”.
The Power Of Being A Couple
Someone asked me the other day what it was that makes it possible for me to passionately dive into the “middle of a couple” and understand them, empathize with them, help them unravel their power struggles, grow their love, heal their hurting. It’s because I believe so deeply in the power of a couple. I have seen over and over again, when two people want to love and be loved, and when they are willing to grow and change, something mighty emerges. Both individuals grow and become more of who they uniquely are. The partnership provides support, comfort, intimacy, teamwork and abundance. Studies show that people in long term satisfying relationships have stronger immune systems, get sick less, and have more energy for life’s ups and downs. And of course, they pass this health and well being on to their children. The kids grow up feeling good about themselves, handling conflict well, respecting human differences, and more gracefully (if not easily) negotiate their way through an increasingly complex world.
Mary And Bob’s Story
Recently my husband and I guided a couple through our MARRIAGE COUNSELING RETREAT, a private intensive program where couples work with us for three or four days working on their relationship. Mary and Bob came to us experiencing distance, hurt and shut down in their marriage. They had no idea how their sad and lonely feelings had crept up on them. Their perspective on themselves was that they had lost their communication, appreciation, and especially their ability to talk to each other about potentially conflicting subjects. When they arrived at our office, they could hardly look at each other.
We listened to their story for a long time. We heard their unique history, each individual’s and the history of their marriage. We talked a lot about their love for and dedication to their children. As we all grew more comfortable, they began to talk to each other about their hurts and disappointments. As facilitators, we helped them slow down and listen carefully to each other, supporting each one to try and make sense of the other’s point of view even if they disagreed, or even if they felt hurt or angry. Each person got a chance to speak frankly and honestly without being interrupted, blamed or shamed. Little by little Mary and Bob built the skill of acknowledging differences without reacting. They experimented with respecting the validity of the other’s world even as they kept their own differing opinions and feelings.
As our process unfolded Mary and Bob began to feel more connected to one another. They looked at each other more, sat closer together on the couch, reached out and touched more. They also discovered they were more curious about each other, more interested in what makes the other “tick”, and how they might contribute to the well being of one another. They felt more courageous about asking each other for changes, as well as being willing to accept “no I don’t know if I can do that for you right now”. As a result, each was able to make changes without feeling coerced, or pressured.
The Simplicity of Slowing Down and Listening
At the end of the weekend, Mary and Bob expressed their renewed hope in “working through stuff” together. They didn’t go away having solved all their problems; they went home committed to seeing themselves and their problems differently. After they left, we sat down and wrote them a letter. The letter expresses how we heard them re-tell the story of their relationship through their work with us. Their story is moving to me because it is so simple. Having lost a perspective Mary and Bob were unable to deal with normal conflict. By slowing down and attending to their current struggle, they not only regained what they had lost, but built deeper trust, respect, and safety in their marriage.
Our Letter to Mary and Bob
Dear Mary and Bob,
You are strong, bright, insightful and loving individuals. You have brought two cultures together, two genders together, and created a warm, loving home with three healthy children. You shared with us that your family is a priority, that you talk, play, laugh, and share together every day, and that your children (though perhaps struggling normally with adolescence) feel safe, supported, and able to be themselves. This is an extraordinary gift you have together.
You also shared with us how dedicated you each are, and have been, to your professions. You continue to develop yourselves, contributing creativity and time to your community; the people around you report how much they believe in and trust your integrity. We understand that there are stressors large and small related to career and work, one of these being a constant juggling of time and attention for each other and your children, but your professions are deeply impacted by your contribution.
Contribution doesn’t end there. We heard of your active participation in your church, and how your senior membership has created a listening among your friends and peers regarding important issues as well. These narratives leave us with the feeling of richness, depth, commitment and love. You have created love and psychological and spiritual abundance all around you!
The story of your intimate bond makes sense to us as well. You feel as if you have grown distant, that your personal needs for appreciation, value, tenderness, dialogue and common relationship goals have somehow slipped away. We would like to frame this differently: Because of your love and appreciation for others, your tender dedication to your children, and your high value on integrity in your work, you have temporarily run out of time to give and receive these same qualities to and from one another.
This is a common problem for couples in your phase of the lifecycle, i.e., mid life career changes, children entering adolescence and young adulthood, both adults growing themselves into ever more creative and powerful individuals. In our western culture, we are not taught that the core of relationship and family life is the intimate bond with our significant partner. We are taught to be successful, make money, be independent, get more, etc. and that some how the relationship will magically happen and sustain itself. In fact, the opposite is true. Success, healthy children, satisfying work, personal growth are all deeply impacted by the health of your relationship. Because you are interdependent, all aspects of your lives separately and together, are affected by how you experience, and tell the story of, your intimate bond as partners.
The good news is that your only trouble is that you have run out of time. You have all the skills, qualities and characteristics that make a good relationship last for the long haul: Friendship, commitment, self-awareness, dialogue skill, insight into your past history, and understanding about what it takes. Your story tells us you developed these together over the last thirty years. A little attention and some regular time will definitely create what you want in your relationship:
• The feeling of being deeply valued, cherished and appreciated.
• Common goals discussed and shared.
• Honest sharing.
• Deep listening.
• Conflict resolution, where both of you feel safe to disagree, be different, even angry.
• A passionate sex life where both your needs are met.
We believe that the story of your marriage already includes these – otherwise you wouldn’t have lasted so long. As our work together unfolds, we look forward to hearing how the narrative begins to take shape in your daily lives. You are already on your way. Just remember TIME AND ATTENTION.
Warmly, Kate and Joel
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