Turning Your Arguments in to Intimacy
This three part blog series is inspired by the numerous couples I have seen who have graciously trusted me to help them process and solve their conflict. Conflicts, arguments, fights, whatever you want to call them, expose us. We extend parts of our hearts in hopes of connecting with our partner just to get pushed away. Doing so over and over is exhausting, painful, and overwhelming. In this series we will first unpack why perpetual conflict arises in relationships, then discuss why it’s worth it to take a new and different approach to arguments, and we’ll end with how to do so. Let’s begin.
When I meet a couple, I ask them to tell me about the evolution of their arguments. What were the arguments like when they first got together; who brought things up in the relationship; how did they solve their problems; and how does it look now. Often we don’t stop to reflect on the progression of our conflict but doing so usually highlights a common process: over time, we tend to get more polarized in our views, more reactive to each other, and stuck in ineffective ways of handling our problems. For most hot button issues you can probably predict with near perfect accuracy exactly how the discussion will go—a familiar and frustrating “here we go again” inevitability sets in. Nothing ever seems to get resolved so you both end up avoiding the issue (or each other) and withdrawing.
This leads to feeling misunderstood, lonely, and ignored. And when I ask why neither person attempts to re-engage the topic the answer usually is some version of “it’s no use because it would just lead to more conflict.” This is dangerous territory. We begin to believe that not talking about the issues will somehow lessen the pain. In this pattern couples drift further and further apart.
So even though we know this pattern of avoidance and withdrawal is hurtful and doesn’t lead to more understanding for either party, why do we still do it? There are many reasons but here are a couple of themes:
- You have done things this way for many many years. At some point, the way you were handling conflict probably worked which makes it even more confusing why things are so difficult now.
- You don’t know what to do differently. For most people there is a true sense of fear in the unknown. If saying or doing something differently is not guaranteed to make it better, the risk is just too big.
- There is a worry that if you show empathy, understanding, or compromise for your partner’s position, you might not get the same treatment from them.
- There is no guarantee that doing something different would help so why risk it?
The title of this blog describes the feeling that saying or doing one small thing can easily set each other off. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Conflict can be productive in a way that each person learns more about themselves and each other. In doing so couples grow a sense of confidence in handling conflict so that it doesn’t have to be avoided. In the next blog we will discuss why talking about conflict differently is so important and begin exploring ways to do so.
If you or someone you know is mired in relationship conflict, contact us for a free 15-minute consultation to see if we can help.
*This blog post is inspired by Dr. Ellyn Bader, Dr. David Schnarch, and Dr. John Gottman and their individual and unique approaches to couples therapy.