Communication in Conflict, By Krista Cheuk, MFT Intern
Relationships are challenging for all of us. As much as we’d all like, there isn’t a magical key to fixing all the problems that we face in romantic relationships. There are books and books dedicated to this complicated topic. However, by the end of this post, I hope I can help you develop some understanding about what triggers us in our relationships and maybe even gain a tool to help communicate with our partners.
Based on studies that have been done in the past, we can safely say that we are hardwired for relationships on a biological level from infancy, where our main bond is with our parents. This continues into adulthood, where our bond may be with a partner or spouse (Johnson, 1988). These relationships, at their best, provide the feelings of safety and consistency that we need as humans to realize our all our strengths and capabilities as individuals. Unfortunately, most of us (read: all) have not had perfect lives and have picked up pain and trauma along the way that complicates the way we relate to others. In the end, creating this ideal safe place of intimacy in a relationship is not always so easy.
This is probably not a surprise to you, but a lot of the challenges that you and your partner face in establishing a safe, secure, and connected relationship can likely be traced back to the relationship traumas of your past (Johnson, 1988). Maybe you experienced some form of abandonment as a child or in a past relationship, and you find yourself fearing that your current partner will leave you. Or perhaps you somehow absorbed the message that you are not good enough and when your partner shares something they are unhappy with in the relationship, you find yourself crippled by feelings of failure and pull away. Additionally, we may have learned to fear conflict from what was modeled in our families and will then try to run away from it at all costs. Give yourself a moment to mull this over: What messages have I learned from my past relationships that may be affecting me now?
Once you have done that, I want you to think of the last time that you and your significant other (current or ex) got into a big fight. What was it about? What were the circumstances? Did you say things to each other that you regret? Did one of you run away from the fight you were having, while the other kept trying to step up the conflict?
Now lets go even deeper, beneath what happened and into the underlying feelings. Dig beneath any residual feelings of anger and resentment and ask yourself, “What was I really feeling in that moment?”. Even if the fight started about something small, like taking out the trash, I can pretty much guarantee that it still had a vulnerable emotion underneath it, probably tied to one of those painful messages you learned previously. Were you afraid they didn’t care about you because they forgot to call you? Or were you overwhelmed by their jealousy or emotional needs? Were you hurt or scared? Rejected? Maybe a memory from the past gets dredged up with these feelings. Give yourself a moment to delve in here, because these more vulnerable feelings are probably the crux of that conflict you had (Johnson, 1988).
To help you out a bit, here’s an example of a recent conflict from my relationship with my husband. My husband loves to play phone games. Constantly. All the time. And I get irritated with him about this. Constantly. All the time. One day, when I saw him playing games on his phone while we were sitting on the couch together, I snapped, “WHAT IS SO GREAT ABOUT THOSE STUPID GAMES!?”. Very mature, right? Looking back on it now, I realize that I was feeling a sense of rejection underneath that outburst. I was hurt that he was spending time with these online friends playing phone games, and wasn’t looking to me for intimacy instead. When I finally slowed down to realize this and express that to him, he was much more receptive to my message and understood where I was coming from.
When one partner gets triggered by something like this, couple conflict can easily devolve into a back and forth, where we can escalate into harsher language towards one another. The anger only grows bigger to cover up the underlying pain or fear I just talked about. One person might get more and more angry, while the other may try to minimize the conflict and escape to their own world. The past relationship traumas have started to run show when this happens.
However, we can disarm this destructive pattern when we can start off our conflict by gently sharing our vulnerable emotion and work with our partner to get our relationship needs addressed. It is so much easier to listen when you hear “Hey, I have been feeling sad because we haven’t gotten to spend much time together lately. Can we do something about that?” in comparison to “Why are you such a jerk? You never pay attention to me anymore”. By starting off with the vulnerable emotion, you as a coupleare able to approach the conflict as a team, instead of being set against one another.
Let’s review really quickly. First, we are wired to be in relationships, but can be affected by the scars and traumas from our past. Next, underneath our anger and frustration, we can usually find a vulnerable emotion underneath it that is what really needs to be addressed. Lastly, communicating this vulnerable emotion with our partner can lead to more receptivity and cooperation in your conflict as a couple.
Now this blog post only scratched the surface of this topic, but I want to leave you with this thought: relationships are hard work and it can be very helpful to have a mental health professional work through these tough issues with you. I shared some of my process with how I see couples work as a therapist, but there can be a lot to sift through if you are in distress and are trying to fix your relationship on your own. Sometimes it is important to have someone else with an outside perspective on the your relationship’s team. Know that it takes great strength to acknowledge the need for and ask for help, and it can be greatly rewarding for you and your partner.
Reference: Johnson, S. (1988). Emotionally focused therapy for couples. New York, NY. The Guilford Press.
The author of this post, Krista Cheuk (MFT Intern #95814) is currently accepting new clients. She can be reached at email@example.com & via phone at (619) 272-6858 x704.
P.S. This article is intended for couple’s that are not in a physically violent relationship. If you find yourself in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship and are concerned for your safety, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-7233 or find resources on their website http://www.thehotline.org/resources/.