A Practice for Couples - Also for Friends & Colleagues
We each of have dispositional tendencies and learned reactions to rising tensions and conflict. In some families, we may have learned that energetic disagreements are okay, even stimulating and productive. They can be contained and include norms of mutual respect. In other families, conflict signals danger. Even modest levels of rising tension may arouse visceral feelings of foreboding and fear.
The point is that we each bring learned responses to the onset of conflict. And the kind of conflict I have in mind here is verbal, not something that involves abusive behavior or violence. It’s the kind of conflict that emerges periodically in the interactions of many if not most relationships, especially between partners. It’s the conflict that often brings people into couple’s therapy.
Framing the Problem
Episodes of rising tension can culminate in intense conflict that cause us to feel hurt and angry. Later, after the fireworks are over, one or both of us suffer feelings of regret and frustration that we aren’t able to handle conflict differently, better: “Why does it have to devolve into harsh words, name-calling, words I wish I could take back, damage to a relationship that is so important to me?”
Framing the Solution
We can examine how we jointly contribute to the problem by virtue of what we each bring to the situation. It may be that one person becomes particularly aggressive in tone and words – or gets there first. And that person may be labeled as the one with “issues.” But these combustible events occur in the context of a relationship. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to start and sustain a fight.
A Plan for Change
What if we made the “systemic assumption” that our chronic patterns of conflict involve contributions from both of us? What if we together, with the assistance of a couple’s therapist, adopted an attitude of curiosity about how we are different dispositionally and behaviorally with respect to our reactions to rising tensions and conflict? What are our triggers and when and how are they sparked, activated?
What’s the course of our interactions that culminates in growing tension? Are there ways we could notice it earlier and prevent escalation into a hot zone of reactivity, an emotional storm? And if we did that, how could we use that moment of reflective pause to make good choices? Are there certain preferred ways of being spoken to that make it easier for us to evoke the moment of noticing?
My experience is that it’s better to practice these changes first in lower-risk situations. In so doing, it is important to be mindful that it is for the sake of learning. Each participant in the learning process must have a voice and feel free to initiate the intervention. It’s not a competition. It doesn’t matter who starts it, what matters is how we work together to create and navigate the reflective pause.
It’s a collaborative competency. Over time, we build confidence and skilled practices. It’s empowering!