4 Ways to Handle Relationship Problems: Three Bad, One Good

We all have our own styles of handling emotional problems. How to do it right.

Posted Mar 16, 2019

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If you were the proverbial fly on the wall and watched Amy and Tom argue, you would see a verbal fist-fight: Both of them digging in, bringing up the past, arguing who said what, both going offense, attacking, trying to bring the other guy down.

Sara will admit that she has a temper. But she gets fed up with Carl strewing his mess throughout the house and she lets him know it. He pushes back with excuses, with anger, but then shuts down, mumbles that he’ll do better, does so for a few days, then slides back into some passive-aggressive mode that starts the cycle all over again.

Jake and Eva have been together a long time and both would say that they rarely / never argue. But if you look at their everyday lives together they seem…disconnected. They each do their own thing, they seem to have parallel lives, and when they are together they are cordial and courteous, but there is a strain, a tension with little closeness or affection.

Each couple has to work out their own styles of handling conflicts, and what this translates into is each partner’s style melding in a dysfunctional or functional way with the other's. Here are the common combinations that don’t work so well:

Competitive

This is Amy and Tom. Both are hot-wired for conflict. When they disagree, it escalates quickly and they just as quickly get into the weeds of arguing over whose reality is right. This is what leads to the stacking up of evidence — pulling out text messages, bringing up events from the past to fortify their case. It rapidly turns into their power struggle with someone needing to win, to emotionally beat the other guy down.

The downside:

Amy and Tom obviously eventually stop — with walking out, the slamming of a door. They go to their corners, cool off. They then come back a few hours later, the next day, and make up: Sorry about last night. But there the conversation ends, the problem is not mentioned.

The problems here are two: They don’t actually circle back and solve the problem, usually for fear of starting the fight again. They also likely say things that shouldn’t be said, low-blows that cause lasting emotional damage…that become fuel for future fights.

Intimidating / passive

Sara and Carl. Sara in her own mind is trying hard to be a nag or anger maniac, but she gets only take so much of…whatever, before she gets fed up and explodes. And Carl then does what Carl does — makes wimpy attempts to push back, but then collapses, shuts down, agrees. But because he is resentful for feeling bullied, because he feels that Sara is always making a big deal about nothing, he makes minimal changes for a short time to get her off his back before he slips into his old ways.

The downside:

Like Amy and Tom, the problem really never gets resolved and the cycle of fed-up and shut down continues. While they may not have the wounding of Amy and Tom, they both stack up resentments — for Amy that Carl never steps up, for Carl that Sara is a bully and aggressive.

Distance

Eva and Jake have worked out their own solution to the conflict, albeit a poor one. Instead of flaring up, they use distance to avoid conflict.

The downside:

Distance is distance. It spreads out across the relationship and quickly becomes a good-enough lifestyle. They avoid the arguments of Amy and Tom, Sara and Carl, but it comes at a cost. They fall into living parallel lives. Their anxiety about conflict spreads out making any connection difficult. They become the cordial roommates. The list of unresolved problems stacks up like a wall between them, keeping them ever further apart.

The good way

The antidote to these less functional ways is filling in the holes, each partner doing what they can’t seem to do, moving towards a middle ground:

For Amy and Tom:

The middle ground is obvious but emotionally challenging. They need to stop the fist-fight, the both flaring up, the getting into the weeds of whose reality is right, the stopping of the power struggle.

What this translates into both being able to put the brakes on their anger when it starts to rise. This may be calling a halt and walking away or each working hard to stay focused on solving the problem rather than scoring points. These are individual goals, individual actions, rather than falling into the thinking of I back down if you back down first.

And if they do walk away and can calm themselves, they need to come back and actually solve the problem rather than sweeping it under the rug with their make-up ritual.

For Sara and Carl:

Sara needs to speak up sooner rather than letting her anger reach the boiling point. She needs to have a sane conversation with Carl about her frustration, while Carl needs to step up and be an equal partner. That said, he also needs to let Sara know when he is feeling bullied, rather than shutting down; he needs to be sensitive to Sara's concerns yet clear about what he is and is not willing to do; he needs to take responsibility for doing what he says he is going to do rather than sinking into the sullen-child mode. They, like Amy and Tom, need to come up with a win-win compromise that truly works for each of them.

For Eva and Jake:

Their avoidance of conflict is their biggest problem. Their individual and couple problem is to speak up rather than pull back and avoid. They can take baby steps in doing this; it doesn’t matter where they start as long as they each take the risk of moving forward rather than retreating or settling. 

They can do this with one-liner comments about something that is bothering them, by writing notes and leaving them on the kitchen counter. How they do it isn’t important — what is important is they each step up and approach what they are each afraid of.

The goal

The goal for each of these couples is to stop the dysfunctional cycle and override their own learned coping styles. Together they need to see problems between not as problems in the other person but as an outcome of their own ways of coping with problems overall. Each needs to see what he or she can’t do that gets in the way of solving the problems between them. 

This is never only about the other guy but about ourselves, where we get stuck handling our own problems. But it is about the other guy in that his or concerns should concern us; it is not a specific problem that we are trying to fix as much as a way of creating a climate of sensitivity and graciousness.

It starts with awareness. It starts with individual behaviors. It stops with breaking the cycle.