Somewhere inside, most intimate partners know their recurring conflicts are not destined for resolution, but they can’t seem to stop their run-away train. Eventually all arguments do stop at some point and exhaustion, withdrawal, and apathy win out over caring and comfort. The partners retreat from the scene of battle and separately lick their wounds of hurt, anger, and betrayal.
After some period of time, the partner who has the least tolerance for separation makes the first move to reconnect. The other partner plays his or her part in this repeated pattern, and eventually there is a wary peace. Both partners may behave as if the fight had never happened. They may not even remember what they were fighting about, or not want to.
Unfortunately, the result of repeated conflicts is not a benign one. A couple who continues to participate in repetitive, unresolved disagreements will eventually lose their ability to restore their intimacy. Believing that their ability to erase negative interactions is guaranteed, they are often unaware of the growing emotional distance between them until it is irreparable.
The cycles of unproductive conflict, re-hashing, and unstable non-resolutions are all too predictable for most long-term relationship partners. As a psychologist and family counselor for over three decades, I have watched so many intimate partners hopelessly enmeshed in these intractable frustrations. Allowed to observe from the outside, I am often able to identify these repeated negative patterns when the partners involved cannot.
A successful conflict-debriefing plan can stop this destructive process. When partners substitute debriefing for rehashing, they fight less and heal more quickly. As each conflict becomes the foundation for a more successful outcome in succeeding fights, they feel as if they are comrades on the same winning team.
A Guide to Intimate Relationship Conflict Debriefing
You’ve just had an argument and both of you realize that it wasn’t the first time. You’re filled with righteous justification, loneliness, and remorse, and don’t know how to reconnect. What’s more, you’re not done fighting for your perspective. You haven’t found any new ground or accomplished a successful compromise, but you didn’t know what else to do in the heat of the moment. You still love each other deeply and are motivated to learn a new way to resolve conflicts in the future.
Step One – Settling down and reflecting separately
Your emotions flare during any intimate conflict, especially when both of you are torn between getting what you want and denying your partner, or giving in and feeling resentful. Also, as conflicts heat up, still-lingering childhood experiences are likely to emerge, bringing with them raw emotions that may not have anything to do with the current situation. Those emotions often come from deep within your unconscious and their tendency to exaggerate the situation can make the argument more threatening to both of you. As your fears escalate, you will also be less able to hear each other’s distress.
When your fight has resulted in your seeing each other as emotional enemies, it is always better to separate for a while and take some time to self-reflect. Not having to directly face the intensity of the frustrating conflict, you will be more able to explore what your motivations and intentions were in the heat of your anger. That awareness will help you become more conscious of the part you played and why.
During each of your personal reflections, write down the answers to the following questions. You will share these reflections with each other when you come back together.
1) When I began the disagreement, what was my goal?
2) Would that short-term goal conflict with my long-term one?
3) Did I take into consideration what my partner might have wanted that could have conflicted with my desires?
4) During the conflict, what did I do or say that took me closer or farther away from what I wanted to happen?
5) Was I clear with my partner as to what I was seeking?
6) Have we fought about this before? If so, what was the outcome and could we have predicted it?
7) Was I really fighting for what I said I wanted, or was there something deeper that I didn’t recognize or was afraid to say?
8) Do I recall seeing these patterns in my home when I was a child, and am I playing any of those parts I witnessed?
9) Has there been anything I’ve done differently in the past that was more successful?
10) What do I now believe my partner wanted from me during our conflict?
11) What do I think my partner is feeling now about the conflict?
12) What can I do to help both of us heal in the moment?
Step Two – Set up the Debriefing Environment
When both of you feel you have looked inward at your own accountability, you are ready to come together to debrief your conflict. To be effective, you will need to create a quiet, uninterrupted place with open-ended time.
Enter that vulnerable arena with mutual respect, ready to learn from each other. It is common for couples to want that goal, but, once into the process, they can easily forget their debriefing intent and return to re-hashing. As much as possible, maintain a rational, loving, and objective experience. But if either of you again begin to escalate into an argument, separate again and repeat Step One. Only come together when you have created the emotional and physical space that can result in resolution, instead of falling back into the pain you had hopefully left behind.
Step Three – Sharing your personal answers with each other
This part of your debriefing plan is where many intimate partners become defensive and cannot listen well. To do this next step effectively, you must mutually promise to stay open to each other’s feelings and thoughts. If either of you begins to feel threatened, you might rush to defend your behavior or try to invalidate your partner’s position. That is a natural response to facing a potential loss.
If you are feeling derailed, tell your partner that you are reacting in a counter-productive way and need to be still for a little while. Don’t blame yourself for feeling that way. It is not easy to stay calm if you feel your partner is holding you responsible for causing the problem between you. Many intimate partners, faced with that challenge, try to erase or minimize what they are hearing. If each of you have reflected on your own accountability and are ready to hear the other, you will avoid blaming and keep your focus on re-building trust.
It may help to take notes while you are listening so you can more easily remember. That will also help you not to interrupt your partner’s train of thought. You can agree to either share your responses after each question or when all the answers are shared. Ask each other which process will maintain the most open and agreeable connection.
At the end of this process, you should have a much better idea of what both of you were searching for during your conflict, and what barriers may have kept you from realizing those goals. Understanding what challenges kept you from staying supportive will help you see more innovative options the next time around.
Step Four – Re-assessing the conflict
With your new information about each other’s internal process, ask the following questions of each other together and share your feelings and ideas. Again, do everything you can to stay supportive and willing to hear the other person’s experience. Stay in the mode of dedicated team members searching for ways to improve your next challenge.
1) What did we learn about each other from our sharing?
2) What parts of the conflict seemed okay?
3) What could we have done better, given what we know now?
4) Have we discovered any deeper issues in either of us that were driving our conflict?
5) Was this conflict familiar? Have we argued about this before?
6) What seemed to be the barriers that kept us from finding solutions rather than fighting?
Step Five – The debriefing plan
Emotional debriefing works better when the partners can stay calm and keep their goals in mind. Even hard-to-resolve problems will give way to better solutions if the partners don’t give up.
Some disputes are harder than others, and the partners may have to commit to many repeat debriefing sessions to break through a difficult conflict. For example, one partner’s desire may be central to his or her comfort or safety, but is incompatible with the other’s legitimate similar core need. Mutually exclusive, deep and lasting desires or unresolved childhood needs can escalate rapidly into a painful emotional battle if either partner does not recognize their urgency.
When intimate partners become frightened of being denied their choices and feel the need to control or be controlled, their conflict can escalate rapidly. If that happens, it is particularly important that they recognize the intensity of their emotions and de-escalate by quieting their reactivity and reflecting separately, as recommended in Step One. When couples can catch those responses early, they can not only stop a frustrating, non-productive process, they can even agree to hug each other closely before they retreat. That show of faith sets the scene for when they reconnect.
There are also times in every relationship when one partner just feels lousy for any number of reasons and is looking for a fight to take out his or her inner frustrations. That is one of the assets and liabilities of intimate relationships: the expectation that the ones we love the most will ultimately forgive us when we take out our internal distresses on them. However, it is important to recognize that an understanding partner response is not always an unconditional guarantee of support. No one can be the object of external irritations repeatedly, and caring partners don’t take advantage.
In the most painful of situations, the partners may be employing repeated conflicts to express the only passion they can still feel in the relationship. Intense emotions are correlated with deep attachments. If a couple has lost their ability to share those feelings in a loving way, they can, sadly, resort to fighting as a way to connect when other options are gone.
Because of the multitude of emotional, physical, environmental, and historical variables that can lead up to a conflict, most couples don’t have a ready understanding of why they fight, especially in repeated, unproductive skirmishes. The beauty of mastering debriefing skills is their ability to facilitate conflict resolution even when intimate partners are not sure what issues have caused their disagreements. If needed, the partners in an intimate relationship must be willing to create, and practice, their debriefing plan many times, and re-frame it as their skills improve. The plan for debriefing requires that both partners genuinely want innovative solutions that replace their prior non-resolution outcomes.
Step Six – Putting Your Debriefing Plan into Effect
The most successful way to put your plan into use is to re-play the last disagreement from your new perspective. Go through the previous conflict slowly and intentionally. Take notes along the way if it is helpful, so your next debriefing plan will incorporate the changes you’re making. Take your time and make sure you stay calm, caring, and supportive. If you can inject some light-heartedness into the process, you’ll do even better.
The following tips will help:
1) Agree to not take things personally, and transform complaints from the past into requests for the present and future.
2) Try hard to stay alert to your level of reactiveness.
3) Avoid comments that you know will put your partner on the defensive. For example, negative judgments, invalidations, accusations, or hurtful challenges.
4) If you feel the urge to do so, tell your partner what you are feeling, rather than say what you might have said. Let him or her know how much you appreciate any positive responses they give you.
Many couples like re-playing the past argument by switching roles. Each partner plays the other’s role including body language, voice intonation, and facial expression. They are careful to represent the other without resorting to mockery or sarcasm. Some ambitious conflict-resolution partners people actually try to play the other’s role as they wished it had been portrayed, rather than how it was in actuality.
Conflicts do not usually happen immediately. There is a build-up, even if the partners in an intimate relationship aren’t paying attention. It is crucial to recognize the signs of a potential argument in order to successfully put your new conflict plan into effect. Once emotions have heated up, it is harder to remember the most perfect of plans.
There are ways to incorporate pre-fight moodiness into a debriefing plan if both partners are willing to face it. Many partners tell me they are unaware of an argument until it is in front of them. That usually means they just haven’t been paying attention. Most people give out warning signs far before they begin to actually fight, but will actually deny them when asked. No one wants to be the bad guy or be accused of provocation unjustly. If partners are willing to look at their before-the-fight behavior, and be open to pre-soothing, they can avoid many disputes. The new plan should include that awareness and have steps to defuse “ready-to-fight” behaviors.
After mastering your debriefing plan, you are hopefully more ready to recognize your conflicts before they become too big to handle. Staying on the same team, you’ll be less likely to feel separate from your partner’s distress and want to help each other towards your common goal.
Debriefing gets easier and more successful as you practice it. Even if you forget to do the process exactly right, don’t worry about it. You want to be able to look forward to the process of resolution even as you begin your next conflict. It’s similar to having a camera objectively watching the skirmish, holding hands with your partner analyzing the people you are lovingly observing, and eagerly looking forward to helping them play a better relationship game.