Why do couples get into conflicts?
Couples get into conflicts because each feels their point of view, their feelings, are being overlooked or ignored. When this happens, each partner can dig in their heels, become defensive or attacking, and further entrench their position, making the chance that he or she will be heard or will be able to hear their partner’s viewpoint and feelings even more remote.
These stuck places often occur because each partner’s individual difficulties and needs are engaged and “hooking onto” the other partner’s individual difficulties and needs.
Difficulties between partners—for example, John is inhibited and Sue is insecure—become personalized, as we ‘read’ our own anxieties into each others’ struggles: “John isn’t showing love because he doesn’t love me very much, because I’m not lovable in these ways…” “Sue is always dissatisfied with me and pressuring me-I feel criticized for my inadequacies…so I’ll withdraw.”.
If couples can take responsibility for their own struggles, if John could talk about his inhibition and Sue could talk about her insecurity, and hear how their struggles affect their mate, the relationship can be a safe place to share in each other’s growth. Empathy and the desire to grow are keys to a healthy relationship!
How do you work with couples?
Events which often lead to coming to couples’ therapy include: repetitive, irresolvable arguments, mutual or one-sided withdrawal, defensiveness, mistrust, infidelity, one or both partners feeling unappreciated/put down, or communication which breaks down inexplicably.
As the couple describes the difficulties they are having, we clarify how each is troubling the other. I coach partners in constructive modes of communication (see below) and facilitate conversation between partners about difficult topics. A collaborative relationship with both partners develops as each learns to listen to the others’ struggles in the relationship and develops greater understanding of the partners’ difficulties in life.
I work with married, unmarried, heterosexual and gay or lesbian couples.
How to open the discussion to each partner’s point of view and experience:
1. Contain your reaction
Talk about what you are experiencing – don’t react/retaliate
2. Be specific
Discuss in detail the present situation – don’t generalize (“you always/never”)
3. “I” statements
Explain how you are affected & be tactful
4. Be open, own your problem
Partners have valuable information to give us
Some aspect of the conflict has to do with our contribution
To hear feedback, even though we feel hurt or defensive, is a strength
5. Allow for differences
Your partner experiences the relationship, and the challenges of life, differently
6. Allow for your partner’s problems – they are stable
Don’t try to fix problems
Try to be on your partner’s side: “this is a tough demon to have on your back”
7. Don’t personalize problems
Our partner’s problems don’t necessarily reflect on our “objective value in the universe”
8. Make it easy for your partner to admit problems
Safety is important for closeness