The New Resilience

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Do Couples Prefer Conflict Over Shared Power?

Research shows couples long for mutuality and transparency.

Want a fast track to divorce? Paul and Kim can show you the way. Like many couples, they jockey around for power, control and "winning" arguments when there's conflict. And their intimacy fades, as a result. Even when one of them apologizes for their role in the conflict, nothing changes. Neither of them realizes that they hold the key to turning things around before it's too late. New research and observations from therapy show how that's possible.

A typical situation of theirs: Married about 15 years, they're on a long road trip to a vacation at the beach with their kids. They're already locked in combat, having arguing over how much time to spend on a stopover visit to one set of in-laws. They fought until one of them just gave in and acquiesced to the other one's wishes. That's how they tend to "resolve" conflict. As they drove along the crowded highways they hunkered down into a mixture of sullenness and half-hearted efforts to change the subject. But the residue of their fight hung in the air, like dark clouds threatening rain at any moment.

Both know that "winning" doesn't improve their relationship, but their conflicts often end with one "giving in" to the other, but then remaining angry and resentful. The "winner" feels smug with power, but also realizes that's not a path towards a lasting, positive relationship. Both tend to turn inward and shut down regarding their feelings. Doing so has diminished their intimacy. They know they're adding another brick in the wall, and that they could be headed down a path to a chronic, adversarial relationship or eventual divorce.

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Periodically, new research and clinical insights pinpoint what it takes to reverse course and turn towards deepening your intimacy and connection. The latest is a large-scale study from Baylor University. It found that couples really long for shared power and greater intimacy. They don't want sustained conflict, or an end-point where one of them wins. Nor do they care much about apologies.

ISO Collaboration And Transparency

What they want sounds obvious. However, it's helpful to see research that confirms what therapists regularly see happen, when couples relate to each other in ways that lead to growth rather than stagnation or divorce. Many of these studies and therapeutic outcomes coalesce around two key ways of relating. I've described them in some previous posts as mutuality and collaboration -- sharing power in daily life; and radical transparency -- two-way openness and exposure that increases intimacy.

The Baylor research, described in detail here, found that couples want their relationships to reflect both shared power and intimacy. For example, "giving a partner more independence, admitting faults, showing respect and being willing to compromise." According to lead researcher Keith Sanford, partners want to "share power and control when making decisions in their relationship." That's what mutuality looks like.

Moreover, they want greater intimacy in the relationship -- which comes about through transparency. They want their partners to "show more of an investment in the relationship through such ways as sharing intimate thoughts or feelings (and) listening...." In addition to sharing power and creating deeper intimacy, couples in the research also expressed desire for stopping adversarial behavior, generally; and for greater communication.

That study links with findings from another: As couples age, they increasingly handle conflicts by avoidance and withdrawal -- changing the subject, as Paul and Kim did. Researchers found that, with age, both husbands and wives "increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict....and when faced with an area of disagreement, both spouses were more likely to do things such as change the subject or divert attention from the conflict," according to researcher Sarah Holley.

Researchers described this as the "demand-withdraw" pattern. In it, "one person in a relationship blames or pressures their partner for a change, while the partner tries to avoid discussion of the problem or passively withdraws from the interaction."

Needless to say, that combo of attacking and emotional shutdown doesn't bode well for healthy resolution of conflict or for increasing intimacy over time. The path to meaningful connection and growth over time -- as opposed to the businesslike, roommate-like relationship that many couples settle into -- isn't easy. Power struggles and emotional withdrawal tend to be default modes. They're features of what I've called our adolescent model of love that people carry with them into their adult relationships, consciously or unconsciously.

Yet most people long for healthy, adult connection: Mutual acceptance; being able to be fully yourself and not fear rejection or chastisement for being who you are; feeling like collaborative partners, on the same emotional and spiritual wave-length.

Studies by noted marriage researcher John Gottman and his Institute show that both mutuality and transparency underlie a positive, sustaining relationship. In my view, the core of both is forgoing self-interest as your main goal; instead, serve the relationship itself. That is, let go of viewing your relationship as a transaction, a give-and-take or investment for which you expect a return. Don't commercialize it. Instead, demonstrate love and support without expecting anything in return. Loosen your grip on what you hope to "get" for yourself.

I know, that can sound like heresy. But in fact it redirects you towards enjoying who each of you are as separate beings, and away from the self-centered goal of trying to get something back. In practice, it means reframing how you behave: Away from seeking power over to having power with. Demonstrate mutuality and collaboration through your actions. Show that you recognize and support your partner as an equal being, not an "object" to serve -- or thwart -- your ego. Using that as a guide, experiment with sharing power in daily decisions or conflicts. Figure out what best serves growing the relationship itself; how that is more than just compromising in a give-and-take way. Many people already do that in their work relationships, where people find themselves having to share power, collaborate, and put aside their self-interest for the larger mission. Try applying that to your relationship.

In addition to collaboration, radical transparency builds deeper emotional, spiritual and sexual connection. I'm not suggesting being an exhibitionist regarding your private fantasies or crazy thoughts (we all have some). Rather, it means exposing your intimate feelings, fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities. And being transparent about your desires or point of view about whatever you're discussing or disagreeing about. Through transparency you reveal your inner self, your true experience of who you are.

Radical transparency has two parts: One is being open and revealing about yourself to your partner. Letting go of inhibitions or defensive feelings you might be harboring about what you've kept hidden, including acknowledging your reluctance to reveal those "secrets." The reverse side is being open and receptive to your partner's reality: encouraging your partner to express his or her feelings, wishes, desires, fears and differences from yourself.

Actually, transparency is rising throughout our society, and couples would benefit from making it a kind of operating system for their relationships. It's an antidote to the long slide into emotional, spiritual and sexual decline, or toward affairs and divorce.

Research from the Gottman Institute and others highlights the importance of building mutuality and transparency in relationships. It's visible in data about couples that stay together vs. those who eventually divorce. That is, mutual collaboration and transparency within an atmosphere of respect are associated with longevity. For example, research finds that early divorce, after about five years of marriage, can be predicted by criticism, contempt and defensiveness in the relationship. But emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorce -- about 16 years after marriage.

It's clear that relationships that thrive, not just survive or avoid divorce, shift away from adversarial power conflicts and related emotional withdrawal -- illustrations of your ego's hold on you; your attachment to self-interest -- and towards sharing power and transparency. And that's not an unattainable idealization: Neurological research using functional MRIs shows that the brain activity of long-term couples who report continued growth and connection -- still being "in love" -- is the same as that of couples who experience the high of having recently fallen in love. Now that's something to aim for, wouldn't you say?

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2013 Douglas LaBier

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.

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