Does work feel like hell, a place where you are prone to feel like you just can't get what you really want? How about at home, or with people you love: do you sense like your attempts to communicate may need a fix? This article explains why that might be happening, and the feelings that occur in response.
In healthy relationships at work or at home, when someone wants something or if problems or differences arrise, participants express their concerns, listen respectfully to each other, and emerge with a solution that works well for everyone involved. If not, there's trouble ahead.
The four detours away from getting what you want.
In less emotionally healthy interactions, conflicts end up with one or more of the participants feeling bad because they did not get what they want. Frustrating outcomes happen because the conflict has traveled along one of four ineffective routes: Fight, Give up (submit), Freeze, or Escape.
These four pathways result in a frustrating process that yields insufficient solutions. Instead of getting you what you want, each of these four detours away from healthy resolution pathways brings on a specific set of negative feelings or actions.
Here's an example.
Let's say that Tim wants a work project completed by Friday. Patricia says she won't be able to do it for another week.
Tim raised his voice. Patricia felt intimidated, and stayed late three nights to finish the project. She was furious at Tim though, and began to think about possibly looking for a new job.
This pathway involves winning disagreements by overpowering the other. Escalated emotional intensity-by talking louder, speaking more rapidly, hurting the other with critical words, or in extreme cases with physical injury-- enables participants to intimidate, dominate, and coerce each other into victory. These methods win in the short-run, but lose over time. Fighters lose by being unable to sustain relationships. You'll get your plan of action, but lost friends or maybe your job. Couples who fight may stay married but anger toxifies and corrodes their affection.
Patricia felt intimidated initially and then depressed. She felt mad at herself, mad at Tim, and hopeless about the direction her career seemed to be going. It was as if a dark cloud hung over her.
If the other person clearly has more power, giving up may feel preferable than engaging in a fight you're likely to lose. Giving up on may appear preferable to fighting if the potential cost of fighting is losing the relationship, say with a boss or with your spouse. Depression, however, tends to be the by-product of choosing a giving-up route.
The next time Tim insisted that Patricia finish a project on an unrealistic time frame, Patricia said nothing. She was not willing to cave in again. Nor did she feel safe admitting to Tim that she was not going to finish the project by the date when he wanted it done. All week she felt highly anxious.
Anxiety hovers when neither side in a conflict moves forward with explicit discussion, information-gathering, problem-solving, or action. On-going disagreement without resolution produces tension between people and/or the inner feeling of anxiety.
Tim sensed that Patricia was not doing the project he'd demanded of her. At the same time, he was afraid this time to make an issue of it. He left work early and headed for the bar.
By turning away into distracting activities or thoughts, there's no fighting, depression, or anxiety, but the conflict remains unresolved. Escape assures you won't suffer unpleasant negative feelings that you don't want, and at the same time assures that you won't get what you do want.
In sum, specific mistaken conflict resolution pathways take you to each of the four main types of emotional distress. These pathways go to (1) anger, (2) depression, (3) anxiety/tension/stress, or (4) addictive/obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Is there a fifth and happier option?
Yes indeed. There definitely are ways to raise your concerns effectively and there's win-win problem-solving. To learn them, check out my blogpost on expressing your concerns and preferences effectively, and also my blogpost on the win-win waltz. Try these sometime and you just might find that collaborative communication and win-win conflict resolution skills can enable you to stay far from the pathways that lead to fights, depression, anxiety or escape habits.
Susan Heitler, PhD is a Denver clinical psychologist and author of multiple publications including The Power of Two: Secrets to a STrong & Loving Marriage. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.