Some Thoughts about Intimacy and Conflict Resolution
For the past three years I have been developing and delivering training materials to teach people how to better manage difficult discussions and confrontations. These programs have been successfully delivered in corporate and governmental settings. Recently I have turned my attention to teaching married couples the same skill set. Having mediated thousands of divorces it has occurred to me that if many of the couples I had helped divorce had learned better conflict resolution skills, many of those marriages might have been successful. But as I have developed this program and reviewed the many books on the market about couples and conflict one fact that has emerged is that intimate couples require a very different approach to conflict resolution than that typically taught in conflict resolution workshops.
In the business or political world we teach many of the same techniques that apply to couples conflict. Active listening skills, neutral language, and reframing techniques facilitate dispute resolution by helping disputants understand the feelings that drive the other person. Such understanding opens the door to better problem solving. But in business or public life the stakes are quite different than in intimate relationships. If someone feels wounded after a dispute in a business setting s/he may withdraw from the relationship and the consequences for the organization, though negative, are not necessarily fatal. People in conflict leave organizations all the time. They quit or are fired or are transferred or offered early retirement. The organization goes on as before replacing the departed employee as a matter of course.
In an intimate relationship the consequences of a withdrawal are not so benign and in fact may be devastating for the partners and even their children. In intimate relationships the stakes in conflict are much higher. This requires dispute resolution techniques that are much lower risk to the relationship itself. In fact, it requires that the relationship often be given higher priority than the issue in conflict. Winning an argument with your wife is self defeating if it breeds resentment that weakens the relationship. Win enough arguments with your wife and she may divorce you. As I develop this material with my professional partner it becomes increasingly evident that the nature of intimacy requires a much gentler approach to the resolution of disputes between spouses and others in intimate relationships.
Consider the components of an intimate relationship. Intimacy requires high levels of trust which requires people to be vulnerable with each other. Vulnerability requires great transparency of feelings and a willingness to be open with each other. Intimacy requires that the partners feel understood by each other as well as accepted, admired and loved. Compared with business or other collegial relationships, intimate relationships are more fragile. They are particularly vulnerable to personal attack or the perception of attack that suggest that the loved one does not accept, understand, admire or love. So when we analyze how people conduct disputes with each other approaches that may lead to resolution of the dispute but leave the relationship damaged do not work.
This is not good news considering how the majority of people learn to dispute as they grow up. When I teach communications classes or conduct workshops on dispute resolution I often survey the class about how disputes were handled in their families. Most report that parents harshly suppressed disagreements from their children. The most common dispute resolution style learned was conflict avoidance. One suppressed the conflict for fear of the consequences of a fight and then tried to conceal the resulting resentment as long as one could until some event triggered an explosive outbreak of anger. The result of the explosion and the fight that ensues reinforces pessimism about reasonable methods of resolving disputes.
A second troubling thing is the persistent fascination in American society for fighting and arguing. Fighting is dramatic while peaceful disputing is boring. I have been involved in promoting divorce mediation for thirty years and trying to get media attention for an approach to divorce that is far less destructive and costly that conventional adversarial divorce. But it has been nearly impossible to get significant media attention because editors and producers are only interested in portraying divorce as dirty fighting soap opera to pander to the public's obsession with fighting. Witness the endless fascination for hotly fought celebrity divorce. I cannot recall any recent story about a celebrity couple who managed an amicable and quiet divorce.
Why is fighting such a problem? I fight to win a struggle. The legitimate tactics for winning a struggle include destroying the opponent, destroying the opponent's will to continue the struggle and beating (emotionally if not physically) the opponent into submission. The word "fight" has no benign interpretations. The term" argument," though perhaps more benign than "fight," also has as its objective the submission of the opponent even if one has to shout him/her down. Arguments have winners and losers. The tactics for winning fights and arguments are not concerned with the feelings of the adversary, and, in fact, may include personal attacks specifically aimed at causing such bad feelings that the adversary surrenders, gives up or submits. Such tactics are fatal to intimate relationships.
So winning fights and arguments is the primary orientation most people have to dispute resolution even in intimate relationships. The essential problem here is that the object in fights and arguments is to win. And despite the popularity of the saccharine cliché and oxymoron "win-win," the concept of "win" only makes sense in the symmetrical context of the concept of "lose." If one disputant wins the other loses. And the person who loses invariably feels defeated and diminished. This may not be a big problem in business but it is a very big problem in marriages. As one partner experiences defeat at the hands of the other, or as that partner feels attacked and diminished in the eyes of the other, the relationship suffers. If I lose my trust that my partner will not hurt me I become more cautious which means I want to be less vulnerable. Thus I begin to conceal my feelings. If I feel it is dangerous to my self esteem to raise difficult issues with my partner, I will avoid conflicts even as I become more resentful and begin to withdraw. As I feel less connected I will find myself with a diminished sexual interest in my partner. And so the marriage slowly erodes until one day one of the spouses, typically the wife, says "We have "fallen out of love." There is no intimacy left between us and so there is no passion any more. We have grown apart. I think I want a divorce."
Jon Gottman, who I regard among the leading researchers on couples conflict, has argued that it is the failure of couples to develop effective means of conflict resolution that accounts for most divorce in America. Based on my experience with thousands of divorces I fully agree with Gottman. For most people attempts at intimate marriages have not been successful. It is commonly observed that half of marriages end in divorce. What is not so commonly observed is that of the other half that stays married, many are unhappy. Many of their relationships are flat and boring and they are held together more by inertia and endurance than by satisfying intimate relationships. So the proportion of marriages that fail to maintain successful intimacy is probably less than one third.
The antidote, we believe, is a much more limited range of options for resolving disputes in intimate relationships. All approaches to dispute resolution in intimate relationships must proceed with a primary concern for avoiding damage to the relationship by not using words, voice tone and body language that communicates contempt, derision, dislike, non acceptance or rejection. Put another way, each partner must speak within a framework that maintains emotional safety for the other at all times. This means that resolution of disputes is limited to discussion, confrontation, persuasion, negotiation and compromise. Moreover, each of these must be done using techniques of neutral language and active listening to insure that problems are vigorously attacked without people feeling attacked and that we address behavior that disturbs us without conveying rejection of the person of the character of that person. Adopting this approach does not mean that issues are ignored. To the contrary, one of the things made possible by the adoption of this strategy is that no issue is ignored and buried because of fear that to raise the issue will cause a destructive, hurtful or useless fight. By creating a strategy in which nothing gets suppressed the couple insures the long term health of the intimate relationship.