3 Reasons Most Toxic Couples Conflict Is Fixable in Therapy
Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.
Posted May 18, 2019
As a marriage and family therapist, I have worked with many couples brought to therapy by growing frustration and disappointment in their relationship brought about by a pattern of hurtful, spiraling conflict. Typically, couples feel misunderstood, underappreciated, and judged. It is often difficult to see any way forward.
The heightened emotional bond of marriage, in particular, puts partners continually at risk for conflict. Murray, Bellavia, and Rose (2003) concluded, “The experience of slights and hurts at the hand of a partner is inevitable. After all, conflicts of interest routinely surface, and even ambiguous behaviors, if sufficiently scrutinized, might seem to reveal a partner’s irritation, disappointment, or disinterest in oneself” (p. 128).
When conflict does occur, partners are often stuck in ruts of retort and resentment. Aggression and withdrawal in the midst of conflict are patterns of conditioned defense, covering up primary emotions, with primal cravings for understanding and support buried beneath. Knee-jerk reactions nearly inevitably result in perceptions of judgment, misunderstanding, and rejection, which diminish respect and increase disconnection–I call this "tailspin" or "the death spiral," because it is difficult to maneuver out of and can destroy relationships. On the other hand, messages of understanding breed respect and connection–or what I call "lift off."
Veteran Ontario psychotherapist Malcolm MacFarlane analogized, “I use [an] image of two magnets with the same poles facing each other to describe the sense of contact, energy, and anxiety that we experience when we enter the sphere of conflict with another person. Many people disengage from this sphere of conflict either by avoiding and backing off or by attacking, escalating, and then disconnecting … The ideal is to learn to stay in the sphere of conflict while being authentic and working through the conflict” (personal communication, June 25, 2016).
Motivation guru Zig Ziglar said it best: “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.” Agreement is not essential for respect and connection, which are typically what we want most.
Our emotions and thinking are inextricably tied to one another and together generate perception. When we perceive misunderstanding, underappreciation, judgment, or rejection, our defenses go up. As the walls rise, we have increasing difficulty hearing one another, which is just another way of saying understanding one another. Empathy drives mutuality.
Sometimes empathy is hard-won. Couples who do not experience mutuality usually channel feelings of sadness, fear, or shame through self-protective or coercive behaviors that fail to achieve what is needed to move beyond them. When such interactions evolve into patterns, couples often experience a loss of trust or a heightening of fear in their relationship, which buries the deeper emotions even further.
When afraid of one’s own anger or when emotion can be buried no further, logic—facts, details, beliefs—provide concealment. Logic is yet another superficial, secondary, reactive, and protective layer of defense for the rawer, primary, underlying, and vulnerable emotions within—of which sadness, fear, and shame are prime examples.
The good news?
1. Couples nearly always already possess the resources they need for a positive relationship.
These resources ultimately involve increasing safety, empathy, and responsiveness. There are no magic facts that heal relationships. Intimacy is embodied, not encoded. Insight is often necessary but never sufficient in and of itself to bring about change. To recondition marital soil so intimacy may grow, expressions of vulnerability and understanding must increase, and reflexive, knee-jerk reactions must decrease. When highly committed to the relationship and highly motivated to see positive changes in it, partners are often quite adept in pivoting toward constructive and healing changes.
Healing is a function of growth. Growth, and thereby healing, occurs as two people lay down their defenses and connect in safe and constructive ways around the unresolved emotion, being careful to honor the unique emotional process of the one they love without stepping on and triggering emotional landmines. Couples therapy can lay the groundwork for this.
2. Changes must be experienced to be sustained, and therapy provides space for this to occur.
You can choose to keep on insightfully explaining what you already believe or risk stepping into a new terrain by exploring together how, rather than why, each of you feels hurt and anger. I’m referring to a shift between defending, criticizing, or debating facts to connecting on a more vulnerable and emotional level.
When one partner aggressively asserts resentments or withdraws in an emotional paralysis, the other partner may react in due pattern, understanding may be thwarted, and a cold distance remains. During this sort of interaction, partners typically feel—and this is where the mutuality ends—misunderstood and unsupported.
Where there is hurt, there must be—and let’s be clear that in some cases this requires great preparation and even facilitation—a coming together and a facing together of the underlying pain. Such pain generally involves sadness, fear, shame, or all three. Respect and connection do not occur at the secondary reactive level of emotion, through explosions, attacks, and retreats, and neither do growth and healing.
It is never easy to communicate vulnerably and honestly through the tremble of raw emotion. Couples have an opportunity to begin to experience a restructuring of their patterns of interaction and their experience of intimacy. When one chooses to communicate nondefensively upon feeling misunderstood or unsupported, the resulting mutual experience tends to be feeling mutual respect and emotional togetherness.
3. We are capable of increasing our capacities for emotional management and self-direction.
Many couples struggle to manage intense reactive emotions they feel in the midst of conflict. We are not necessarily determined by our impulses. If you and your partner find yourselves in a tailspin of disconnection, make a decision today to lean into a new paradigm marked by respect and understanding and driven by intentionality. This is challenging work, and you may benefit from the facilitation a therapist can provide. Over the course of therapy, partners are capable of consolidating new positions, attitudes, and cycles of attachment behavior and experiencing conflict in a more satisfying, growth-oriented way.
This article originally appeared at GoodTherapy.org.
Murray, S. L., Bellavia, G. M., & Rose, P. (2003). Once hurt, twice hurtful: How perceived regard regulates daily marital interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1), 126-147.