How to navigate conflict when you and your partner deal with trauma and fear differently
Conflict is an inevitable part of any close relationship. The main differences between couples in successful partnerships and those who struggle, is not that one group experiences conflicts and the others are conflict-free. It is how the couple view and navigate differences and how they repair connections that affect the quality of a relationship. In many cases, one of these differences lies in the way partners react to stress and fear.
THE UNCONSCIOUS CYCLE OF CONFLICT
Imago Relationship Therapy teaches us that we subconsciously fall in love with a partner who mirrors our own historical childhood wounds and longing, but their defensive response to pain is more often than not the opposite to ours. That is to say, if in times of conflict and stress you need your space, and achieve that by withdrawing and shutting down, it is very likely that your partner’s defensive response to anxiety and tension will be needing closeness, and needing to talk about the issues here and now.
In Imago we call it the ‘minimiser’ – minimising their energy, distancing themselves and needing space, and the ‘maximiser’ – a response to tension which expels their energy, changes their tone of voice, body gestures, intensity of conversation and more. Think about one of the issues you complained about. You might have said it clearly or aggressively, or you might have given up and reacted with passive aggressive behaviour. Whatever the behaviour, criticising or blaming and avoiding it probably didn’t get you what you wanted – it might have even made the situation worse. When couples stick to the agreed unspoken ‘scripts’ of their relationship, an unconscious repetitive scenario occurs when the defensive reaction of the minimiser, causes the maximiser to respond intensely, creating further anxiety. In other words, we have a relationship between two defensive mechanisms, but no one is really talking about the real issue.
Whenever your defensive response is to attack, avoid and everything in between, you activate your partner’s defensiveness. It means that your partner’s brain doesn’t receive you as someone who is safe in that moment. It is not to say that you are a danger to your partner, but your partner’s brain perceives it as such, and the central nervous system reacts accordingly. Think about which specific behaviours are required by you to become a source of safety.
CROSS THE BRIDGE
Put your reactivity aside and see the situation from your partner’s point of view. Pay attention, not only to what is said, but to the emotional subtext it reveals. Cross the bridge to their world and experience their perspective considering their history and past experiences. It’s not about agreeing with their perspective, it’s about deep listening, deep understanding, validating and empathising with their feelings. What you’re arguing about is rarely the actual issue. Deep listening from a place of curiosity and wonder will help shed light on the real story underneath the conflicted surface. Is it about not feeling appreciated, heard, or safe? Is the core and historical wound about abandonment, a sense of being inadequate or over-controlled? When you listen long enough, you can understand and empathise with your partner’s past experiences, learning not to take your partner’s reaction personally. Early on in the relationship you both learn these defensive reactions to stress. Even though it was valuable and necessary back then, it now takes a lot more understanding for the relationship to go as far as possible.
You might ask yourself what the alternative is. One suggestion is to view conflict as growth. You have the opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your relationship which will move you outside your comfort zone to grow and heal in your most vulnerable place. It is here for a reason.
WHAT DOES THE RELATIONSHIP NEED FROM YOU?
One of the core ideas of conscious partnership is the focus of ‘us’ – the relationship, rather than ‘I’ and ‘you’. To fully understand this, you need to move away from a ‘victim’ mind-set. For example, any language you use to describe the reasons a situation is your partner’s fault, or what your partner needs to change in order for you to be happy. A victim’s inner voice and mindset will only create more rupture in the relationship and disempowers you to make the necessary changes. Instead, think about what it is that the relationship needs from you right now.
This radical difference is to replace the question of what I need from the relationship, to what the relationship needs from me. The former looks for gratification, the latter focuses on the relationship as a whole. This is a paradigm shift. Imago suggests it is based on the understanding that when the relationship is better, the individuals feel better and not the other way around. In other words, when you care enough about your relationship, you as an individual will benefit the most. Think about your relationship and what it needs from you. Is it to show up more, to initiate more, to be more present emotionally and physically, or is it to contain more, to self-regulate, to show up with vulnerability instead of anger and aggression.
WHAT EXACTLY DO I WANT? (RATHER THAT WHET DO I NOT WANT)
We are, as human beings, far too focused on the negative – on what we are not getting, rather than what we have or what we want. Your partner might not give you what you want in one area of life, but don’t let that overshadow all the wonderful things they do. What I have found interesting when asking my clients, “what exactly do you wish for?” they usually start to explain more about what they don’t want. “I don’t want her to criticise me near the kids”, “I want him to stop telling me what I should do”, “I hate it when he is late and I’m waiting for him”, “I don’t want her to complain all the time and be grumpy”, to mention a few examples.
Here is the gold – whatever you’re focused on is what is going to grow. So if you keep focusing on complaints, control, lateness and so on, it doesn’t matter what words come before that (“I don’t want…”) the brain only registers the core words (in bold above) and this is what is going to grow. If you want to change it, practice saying what you want. Be very specific with the desired behaviour and use positive wording.
To continue with the examples above, it might be “I would like you to support me more in front of the children and any disagreement we have will be discussed respectfully and privately”, “I would like you to trust my abilities and judgment.” It would be lovely to hear ‘trust yourself, you can do it’ or ‘I appreciate the way you think about this’”, “when I come home from work it would be lovely to greet each other with a smile and a hug”. Ultimately – negative words raise defences, positive words raise cooperation.
STARTING CONFLICTED CONVERSATIONS ON THE RIGHT FOOT
Firstly, check in with your partner that it is a good time for them to talk. Jumping into a conversation when your partner is in the middle of something or mentally occupied is never a good start. Then, start the conversation sharing appreciation for each other, your intentions and shared common ground, values or goals. When you operate from a place of love and respect, it is more likely you will reach a productive and successful conclusion. Avoid using the word ‘you’ and instead speak in ‘I’ position (“I feel” “I think” “In my experience”). Remember that you are talking with the person you love, not with the enemy. Adjust your tone of voice and choose your words accordingly. Rather than talking about the past, look for agreed ways to move forward. At the end, do not forget to thank your partner for this conversation and appreciate the growth this issue offered you and the relationship.
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari is a relationship expert, psychologist and therapist. Her 30 day online course ‘Ready for Love’ is specifically for couples who are looking to transform challenges into a meaningful and happy relationship.