Conflict Happens

How a good fight can save your relationship.

Posted Apr 05, 2011

By Bill Cloke, Ph.D.

Lannie and Dave were out for breakfast one Sunday when his phone rang. He dove for it and Lannie flipped out. They had agreed to shut off their cell phones at mealtimes.     

Dave: What?

Lannie: You broke your promise.  

Dave: Lighten up, it's no big deal.  

Lannie: So, our relationship is no big deal?  

Dave: Why do you have to micromanage?

Lannie: So, it's all my fault?

Dave: No, it's just all about you.

Lannie: Jerk.

Dave: Bitch.

What went wrong in this interchange? Basically everything. They were defensive, critical, and stubborn. Why would they fight like this at the expense of their intimacy

All couples fight, but for those who fight dirty by hitting below the belt, swearing, yelling and defending, they are usually responding to deeper emotional land mines, they just can't see them. It's what I describe as the "confluence of pain." This confluence originates from emotional wounds resulting from bad experiences which surface during a fight. Couple conflicts that end in a stalemate usually originate from this kind of convergence.  

With Dave and Lanni we see their confluence rearing its ugly head. Dave couldn't own that he broke his promise because it would have confirmed that he had failed and was in fact inadequate. Psychologically that would be too unbearable, so his brain protected him with a defense. Lanni, for her part was piqued because she felt invisible and unloved. He stepped on a personal land mine.

Here's what a good fight looks like:  

Lannie: We had a deal to not talk on the phone during mealtime.

Dave: You're right, I'm sorry. It's important to have this time together. It's just that sometimes I get compulsive about the phone and can't help myself. It has something to do with needing to be successful and not wanting to fail.

Lannie: I can see that. How could I remind you without making you feel criticized?

Dave: Just understand that this is my issue and don't take it personally. Try to remember that I do love and care about you.

Lannie: I clearly took it the wrong way, and I know that you love me. I will try to remember that the next time you push one of my buttons.  

Dave: I will try to remember how important it is to you that I honor our agreements.

We all get angry, but expressing it is not important. Anger is always informative. It tells us that something is up. Once we learn how to steer around those depth charges and go for the connection we are moving in right direction, toward resolution. I have never known anyone who has resolved an argument when they are angry. Our first reaction is usually to become angry. It's what we do with anger that matters most. If we deliver our message calmly after we have cooled down and listen to our partner, we will convey our complaint much differently than from our sense of entitlement to be angry.

All good relationships whether internally or in the outside world operate the same way. Compassion, understanding, respect and empathy works and criticism, defensiveness, contempt and shutting down does not.  As we learn to release ourselves from the pain that binds us and listen to the feelings, needs and concerns of our mate, the more we will be truly happy together.

Bill Cloke, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Los Angeles.