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Why Small Disagreements End in Nightmare Fights

Three signs a partner may be incapable of resolving conflict peacefully.

The discussion may be as simple as where to go to dinner yet ends in a screaming match. Why? Some partners may be incapable of resolving conflict.

Owning a mistake, understanding a partner’s perspective, and identifying a compromise, are healthy ways to resolve conflict. A couple who repairs a rift quickly is usually happier, more at peace, and able to sustain trust.

Alternatively, arguments which constantly spiral into power struggles and end with a winner and loser, may indicate a problem. A partner who lacks skills such as, self-awareness, open-mindedness, and empathy may be robustly and rigidly defended. Although defense mechanisms are universal and necessary, a defensive structure that is overbearing may prevent a person from experiencing the uncomfortable, but necessary, emotions that allow for a healthy resolution.

A partner who routinely displays three defense mechanisms during a fight; deflection, projection, and victim stance, may be protecting himself or herself from the discomfort of insight, remorse, and empathy.

Unconsciously defending against these capabilities may save a partner from internal discomfort in the moment but, long term, may prevent him or her from being able to actively solve issues in a relationship.

For example, say Ron and Jane are at dinner with friends. Jane says to the group, “I guess we won’t be going to Mexico; Ron didn’t get a raise or a bonus this year.” Ron, embarrassed that his private business is broadcast to others, mentions it to Jane in the car on the way home. Jane reacts angrily, stating, “Well, it is true, isn’t it? You are the reason we cannot go to Mexico. I am simply stating the facts. You blew it for us.”

In this example, Jane is too defensive to reconcile. She deflects accountability, refuses to admit that her comment was hurtful, and fails to experience empathy for Ron. Instead, she justifies her comment, repeats it, and turns the scenario back onto Ron. She positions herself as the victim and accuses Ron of causing her hardship in place of owning her insensitive comment.

Alternatively, if Jane is less defensive, she may think about Ron’s position. Possessing self-awareness, she realizes that she, herself, is embarrassed that she and Ron are unable to go to Mexico. Attempting to save face, she evades the embarrassment by publicly placing the blame on Ron. This insight is uncomfortable, but it allows Jane to have empathy for Ron. Jane resonates with the discomfort of feeling inadequate amongst friends. She sincerely apologizes and conveys an authentic understanding of how she impacted Ron. Ron accepts her apology and asks Jane if they can stop for ice cream. While indulging in some double chocolate chip, Ron asks Jane if they can save for the next trip. Jane agrees and they devise a plan together to secure a vacation the following year.

In this part of the example, Jane is less defensive and allows the uncomfortable emotions to provide her with additional data about herself, Ron, and the conflict. She uses this insight to make amends so she and Ron can move on peacefully and happily.

On the other hand, if a partner displays three extreme defense mechanisms, as Jane did in the first part of the example; deflection, projection, and victim stance, he or she may lack the ability to work out the normal issues that crop up in any relationship.

In addition, a partner who lacks the emotional capabilities necessary to resolve interpersonal conflict productively may resort to manipulative tendencies to get his or her way. Intimidating a person with threats, inflicting guilt, throwing fits, and degrading a person until he or she surrenders, are tendencies of an emotionally abusive partner.

A less obvious but equally impaired partner may employ subtler tactics. For example, a partner who agrees in the moment, but harbors anger because things did not go his or her way, may later punish a person passive-aggressively. Also, distorting the interaction and painting a person as the “bad guy,” then broadcasting the event allows a problematic partner to “rally the troops” in his or her favor behind a person’s back.

Although these manipulations are elusive and, if treated as isolated incidents, may be easily swept under the rug, identifying a theme of destructive defensiveness in the face of even a simple discussion is important.

It is also critical to acknowledge that assessing a partner’s degree of defensiveness may be confusing. Often, an intensely defensive partner is caring, open, and supportive outside of conflict.

However, if a pattern of extreme defensiveness occurs during discussions, it may be critical to encourage the partner to access counseling. Otherwise, a person may not feel comfortable bringing up issues.

Having the ability to talk freely about feelings and opinions with a partner is essential to a person’s happiness in the context of the relationship. The ability to work out conflicts solidifies trust, closeness, and joy.

More from Erin Leonard Ph.D.
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