Conflict - Marriage & Relationship

Why we Avoid Conflict

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.

What if you knew how to fix it every time?

We believe that couples MUST learn to repair conflict skillfully because as two people living together over time, we’ll always bump into each other, and inevitably injure one another. What might it be like to be secure in the knowledge that no matter what happened you could always work it through? We believe this is possible and a worthy goal towards which to work as a loving couple.

What causes conflict in an intimate partnership?

Usually what we say is the issue isn’t the issue. Once we had a fight about how the dinner dishes should be cleaned up. Once we had a fight about where to go on vacation, what kind of car our son should have as his first car, how much money should be spent on a house. Sound familiar? Other topics are:

“You used that tone again!”
“What tone?”

“Why can you never be on time”?
“Who cares if we’re a little bit late”!

“I need more sex. You owe it to me”
“I owe you sex! WOW!”

“You said you would _______________ and you haven’t!”
“Stop nagging”.

And on and on and on.

Couples conflict is called the power struggle.

 

When partners take the position of “I’m right and you’re wrong” we call it a power struggle. Connection is ruptured, good will decreases, and anger and resentment increase. Chronic stress is often the result, which breeds more resentment, and often causes partners to give up. The end game is something like this: “He/she just can’t communicate; we fight all the time; I’m exhausted; I can’t go on like this.”

You can either be right or you can have a relationship

A win-lose interaction is lose-lose for your relationship. If one person feels like the loser and one, the winner, there will eventually be resentment, hurt and anger even if it is never spoken. If you take a position that both peoples’ perspectives are worth considering then you’ll come out of the power struggle and begin to understand each other. Understanding creates good will and connection. To be a happy couple that knows how to repair conflict doesn’t mean you will always agree, but it will mean you’ll stay connected. We call this the Intimate Team.

How does an Intimate Team deal with conflict?

relationship
1. You have the attitude that both people bring valid perspectives to the table. A good team believes that differing points of view, feelings and needs inform, and make the team better.

2. When there are hurt feelings, you listen without shame and defensiveness. Shame is the emotion that prevents most people from saying “I’m sorry” or even listening lovingly to another persons’ hurts.

3. You use a loving and safe conversation style that gives both people the chance to air their perspectives, feelings, and needs with respect. This leads to the melting of the power struggle and the ability to work through difficult topics.

4. Both people take turns listening and speaking; you take each other seriously and welcome all parts of each person.

5. If you have hurt your partner or team member you make amends using a four-step apology process.
a. Listen carefully and openheartedly to the pain of the person you injured.
b. Take responsibility for the behavior that hurt the other and say you’re sorry. It goes something like this: “Yes, you’re right. I did raise my voice and I’m very sorry I hurt you by doing that”. NOT: “I’m sorry you’re hurt”. This does nothing to let the other person know you own your behavior.
c. Ask if the other person needs anything to help them forgive you: “ what can I do right now that might help you forgive me?”
d. Do what is being asked to the best of your ability.

In the apology process the injured person may say something like this: “ Why did you do that? I don’t understand. Please tell me what was going on for you”.

This is a fair request. Can you go inside and make sense of your own actions? Can you respond without shame and defensiveness? It is a high art to make amends like this.

Here’s an example:
(Raised voice, shaming tone): What are you doing? I have told you so many times you have to lock the gate, not just hook it!”

“Okay okay. Why are you talking to me that way? I feel hurt and put down! I don’t really deserve to be spoken to like that. You can remind me! I’m not a moron”.

“Well, if you’d remember, I wouldn’t have to raise my voice. Sometimes you are so forgetful, you drive me crazy; I can’t believe you don’t remember”…

Can you relate? This could lead to a very ugly fight. The smallest interaction can become painful, mean spirited, and result in both of us feeling angry, disconnected, or worse.

What do you do when someone you love tells you that you have hurt them? Most of us get defensive and angry. Why? Because underneath the defense is shame. Shame feels bad. It’s the sense of humiliation when we have done something wrong and are being criticized for it.

What is Shame?

There are two kinds of feelings when someone tells us we’ve hurt them: Remorse, and Shame. Remorse is the feeling we have when we have hurt someone and we feel bad about it. Usually it comes up as an ache in the heart, an “oh darn! I didn’t mean to do that”, and a sense of caring for the other person. Feeling remorse means you are an empathic person. You care about others’ feelings; you can own your mistake and apologize.

Shame is the awful sinking feeling inside that says, “I wish the earth would open and swallow me up right now”. We feel bad about ourselves; we feel as if there is something wrong with us. It’s as if we’ve been exposed as disgusting and awful. There is a sense of dread, humiliation and the desire to get away. Many people respond to their shame by becoming defensive and angry.

If, when you are told you have done something hurtful, you only ever become angry or defensive, you might want to take a look and find out if you are suffering shame. If you are, you probably don’t say “I’m sorry’’ very often, or at all. You might not be able to empathize and truly make amends for a mistake.

Everyone feels shame. It’s not great, especially if we have long histories of being shamed with fear and criticism but it’s common. In this culture it’s shameful to admit we feel ashamed so we never actually get a chance to heal our shame wounds.

Let’s re do the interaction above, and see how it might resolve more easily. We all get irritable, critical, and unskillful sometimes. We all need our friends and loved ones to call us out and remind us to correct our behavior. This is the stuff of life. It’s normal to make mistakes. What if, in your relationship, it was okay to mess up? And okay to be corrected? And okay to apologize? Not always easy but a wonderful intimacy building skill to have! Here we go:

(Raised voice, shaming tone): What are you doing? I have told you so many times you have to lock the gate, not just hook it!”

“okay okay. Why are you talking to me that way? I feel hurt and put down! I don’t really deserve to be spoken to like that. You can remind me! I’m not a moron”.

(Deep breath. Breathing into that sick feeling like I did something bad).
“Oh boy… I hurt you. You’re right. (Pause, breathe again. Make eye contact and take responsibility for my actions).
“ I do not have to talk to you that way. I am very sorry. I hope you’ll let me repair this…”

“Okay, but I feel really hurt. You remind me of all the other shaming, yelling people of my past. I don’t like it and I don’t deserve it.”

“You are right. Is there anything you need right now from me? I am really going to work on this and I do not want to talk to you this way. It’s not who I want to be. Even though I feel a bit humiliated right now, I want you to know that I hear your feedback and I am available to be corrected.”

“Thank you. I’ll need a bit of time to adjust but I appreciate you letting me stop you.”

Sometimes a hug is nice here or just an agreement to get back together a bit later for some connection.

Think about your relational “messes”. We all have them. How do you repair relational bumps? How do you make amends? AND as the hurt person, how do you receive an apology? It’s an art.

We teach people the art of having safe conversations, healing conflict, making amends, and working through shame.

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