How Couples Stop Conflict (Part I): Stuck in Gridlock

The Primary Emotion of Conflict

In another blog, "Why Couples Keep Fighting," I wrote about the engine that drives couples' conflict: FEAR.

  • ...of being alone, abandoned, unlovable
  • ...of being unseen, invisible, insignificant
  • ...of being vulnerable, rejected, hurt
  • ...of the unknown or uncertainty

Anger is the emotion that often does show up when couples fight, but is usually one that comes up AFTER the fear center in the brain has already been activated. Anger and its explosively loud or deadly silent expressions reactively serve to protect and care for the self. Though well-intended, it is misguided; rarely does anger bring about the effects that each person seeks.

Why Conflict?

Conflict is itself not (automatically) a bad thing. In fact, it is unavoidable if the couple relationship has any chance of surviving and thriving, because it is simply the byproduct of two unique human beings joining to co-create a brand new, never-before-seen life.

Naturally, the couple will bump elbows and be inconvenienced by each other, but each disagreement serves as a wonderful (though not always pleasant) opportunity to intentionally craft the relationship to reflect their strengths and limitations.

Conflict works best when both parties fully show up and address the topic at hand. However, there are some habits that that make conflict more unproductive and hurtful than constructive and beneficial. These habits are:

  1. Fighting on the Wrong Page
  2. Fighting at the Wrong Place (Part II)
  3. Fighting at the Wrong Time (Part III)

When the Couple is on the "Wrong" Page

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Many couples get stuck at a stalemate around certain topics, such as:

  • how to spend/save money
  • how many kids to have
  • whether to move to another city, state, or country
  • what church to go to
  • how to discipline the kids

When these hot-button topics are brought up, both sides dig their heels into the ground and resist the others' attempts to change their mind. Tension escalates, jaws and fists clench, stomachs churn, loaded words are thrown, reason disappears, and hearts are hurt. One person starts shutting down, while the other starts raising their voice. And on and on they go...

Eventually, both parties feel unheard, unvalued, misunderstood, unloved, and defeated. If subsequent attempts also fail, hopelessness takes root, putting the relationship at greater risk. 

But what if neither is the villain? What if the couple is just on the wrong page, tuned into different channels? What if they really desire the same thing (a better life together), but just have different strategies on how to make that happen?

The Life of Jack and Jill

What happens if a couple attributes different meanings to the same topic?

Take finances, for example. Money means different things to different people: 

  1. Money as status/prestige
  2. Money as security
  3. Money as enjoyment
  4. Money as control/power

Let's take a look at the relationship between Jack (who sees money as security) and Jill (who sees money as enjoyment).

To Jack, having a budget is all about having consistency, predictability, and order so that they can plan and implement big goals for their future life - having a house (or two), kids' college funds, medical coverage, retirement, etc. Jack feels reassured knowing how much money they are bringing in, how much they're saving, and where it's going.

Through his lens, Jill's spontaneous spending habits seem threatening. To protect his vision of their life together, he calls her careless and immature. When he sees her avoiding the conversation, he gets frustrated and resentful. He feels like she's intentionally draining the bucket he's desperately trying to fill. 

To Jill, money is a tool that reduces stress and enhances the emotional quality of the relationship. Purchasing paintings to decorate their living room or getting couple massages is how she tries to create a restful, warm life together where they can enjoy each other's company.

Through her lens, Jack's structured spending habits seem cold, rigid, and rejecting of who she is. She initially responds to Jack's criticism by shutting down, and when she can't take it anymore, she lashes out and calls him a coldhearted Scrooge.

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In the end, Jack feels misunderstood, dismissed, and villainized, while Jill feels deeply rejected and abandoned. The money issue is nowhere close being resolved, and neither gets what they want.

Neither side is entirely in the right, but neither side is entirely in the wrong either. Because each side is so invested in seeing things his/her own way, they both miss the message that the partner actually wants the same thing that he/she does: to build a good, lasting, full life together. On the surface, it seems like they are fighting about finances, but they're actually fighting about different strategies to achieve the same vision.

Unfortunately, the end result of these kinds of conflict conversations is that the topic (finances) rarely gets resolved, while the relationship itself takes a huge hit. Although each person's strategies are legitimate in their own respective ways, they get misinterpreted by the partner as illegitimate, nonsensical, uncaring, etc. Thus, a practical, impersonal topic becomes deeply personal.

Action Step: Bird's-Eye

Does this sound like your relationship? Try this. The next time you get into this escalating deadlock with your partner, SAY OUT LOUD:

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"Hey, I'm sensing that you and I are talking about the same topic (finances, parenting, etc.), but we're not on the same page. Can we take a step back and rewind a bit? I'd like to hear what this topic means to you and why you feel so strongly about it. Help me understand where you're coming from."

Notice what happens! Suspend judgment, and be curious.

  • Where does the conversation lead? Does it end up the exact same way it usually does? What's different?
  • What's it like to hear your partner share why this topic is so important to them?
  • What negative outcome is your partner hoping to avoid? What is he/she afraid of?
  • What positive outcome is your partner trying to create? What does he/she excited for?

The goal of this detour is not to have another debate about the topic, because it's not really about the topic, but the personal MEANING behind it.

This kind of conversation is meant to SLOW DOWN the couple so that they can realize what kind of pattern they get caught in and learn more about each other at a deeper level. It's about cultivating EMPATHY, the ability to "enter into" another person's experience and see things from their point of view.

When both parties feel heard and understood, there's little need for them to use their reactive patterns to get their message across. This frees the couple up to actually brainstorm a creative solution.

Does this resonate with you?

Stay tuned to learn about the other two stumbling blocks!

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© Copyright 2018 Joanne B. Kim. All rights reserved.

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Joanne B. Kim, AMFT

Joanne is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist in San Jose, CA, who loves empowering individuals and couples to create emotionally thriving relationships. She fully believes that emotional health and relationship health have everything to do with each other: when one part hurts or heals, so does the other.

She holds a special place in her heart for adult survivors of emotional abuse/neglect and for high-conflict couples - those who desire deep connection, but feel stuck, anxious, and frustrated in their significant relationships.

What began as her own mission towards wholeness became a passion and calling to accompany others on their own journey to love and be loved. She loves creating a safe space for others to cultivate their curiosity and courage to explore the deeper places that hold the secret to meaningful relationships.