In all relationships conflict is necessary and creative
because it alerts the parties to the presence of hurts, vulnerabilities and
ways of relating that require resolution within each person as individuals and
between the duo who are in a defensive relationship with each other.
When partners in a couple relationship view conflict as ‘bad’, the tendency is for one or both of them to bury it, ignore it, blame the partner, family of origin or the world, deny its existence or hope that time will heal matters. None of these defensive responses will bring about the deserved changes that the couple conflict is crying out for; indeed, the unresolved issues will only fester like an untreated wound. People readily accept that physical pain is a creative bodily power that signals a need for physical healing, but emotional and social pain are equally profound signals that relationship healing is needed.
The first step to resolving couple conflict is the acceptance of the conflict by both partners and the commitment to seeing the opportunities that it presents for healing and growth. All conflict is an invitation to deepen the relationship within each partner and between them; it is not an invitation to run or get out of the relationship. Certainly, it may come to the latter action, but such an action needs to be a last resort, rather than a first. If partners do eventually decide to separate, it is important for themselves and, particularly, for their children, that they do so amicably. Children can endure untold unhappiness when their parents are continuously fighting, and it is very common that the conflict continues long after the separation. Children often say to me: ‘my parents were fighting before they separated; they’ve continued to fight since they separated; Tony, why did they separate?’ Great question, but the answer lies in that neither parent has resolved their own inner issues and each continues to project onto the other their own inner unhappiness.
The second step to the resolution of conflict is for each partner to begin to identify the signs and sources of conflict. Generally speaking, the definition of what is the problem will be different for each partner. A good starting point is for each partner to identify precisely what aspects of the relationship are causing conflict – emotional, social, financial, occupational, behavioural, sexual, intellectual. Examples of the foregoing are:
- emotional – coldness, jealousy, fearfulness, loneliness, depression
- social – few or no social outings together, few or no invitations to outsiders, long periods of silence between couple, over-talkativeness, non-listening
- financial – inequality, over-controlling of finances by one partner, meanness, overspending, gambling
- occupational – frequently works late most weekends, preoccupied with work matters, refuses to work, stressed out from work
- behavioural – threats, aggression, blaming, violence, possessiveness
- sexual – little or no sexual contact, hating sex, dislike of own body, premature ejaculation, being non-orgasmic
- intellectual – being superior, putting partner down, feeling inferior, worrying all the time, living the past or future
Before both of you choose to talk to each other on the identified conflict, be sure each of you look first to yourself. Many people who have sought help for their relationship difficulties defensively see their partners as having all the problems; ‘if he would only change, all would be well!’ The reality is that problems marry problems and relationships difficulties call out for change in both parties.
Each partner needs to ask the following questions:
- Is my love unconditional?
- Do I send ‘I’ messages (not blaming ‘you’ messages)?
- Do I listen without interruption?
- Am I tolerant of differences between us?
- Do I consider my partner’s needs?
- Am I over-considerate and protective
- Do I sulk, withdraw or maintain hostile silences?
- Do I dominate and control?
- Do I nag?
- Do I shout, roar and scream?
- Am I judgemental and critical?
If any or both of the partners answer ‘no’ to any of the first five questions, or ‘yes’ to any of the remaining ones, the answers provide some indication of the self and interpersonal work required on both partner’s part.
When partners decide on an appropriate time and safe place to discuss their difficulties, giving space to each other to talk without interruption helps enormously. When one partner talks, it is vital that he talks about himself, not about his partner (that is an act of blaming). For example, if a partner complains ‘you’re always out’ he is not owning his own need and there is a high likelihood that his partner may react defensively to the judgement and criticism. Once a couple revert to defensive responses, no progress on resolution of their conflicts can be made. However, an apology and a return to speaking about oneself can put resolution efforts back on track. Taking the example given, the mature message would take the form ‘I really miss you when you’re not at home in the evening times’ or ‘when you don’t come home after work, I am afraid that you have lost interest in our relationship.’
When one partner does respectfully listen and acknowledges the expressed unmet needs, the same courtesies of listening to and valuing his or her experiences need to be accorded. It is from this base of mutual listening and valuing that progress can be made towards meeting the needs of both partners. If the process continually breaks down then outside help may need to be sought.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author. The book relevant to this article is Myself/My Partner.