Working with couples as I do, I am frequently asked how to handle arguments, or ‘ruptures’ as we Imago Relationship Therapists call them. Many people are afraid of conflict and seek to avoid it as far as possible, but in Imago we say that ‘conflict is growth trying to happen’ and we welcome it. Conflict is a sign that the relationship is settling and growing, and the individuals are healing their childhood wounds.
We partner up it is with someone who is, at some level, similar to one of our primary childhood caregivers – usually Mum or Dad. We have a subconscious recognition of a primary caregiver when we fall in love, although it may be hard to spot at a conscious level. In the initial romantic stage any irritations or differences are overlooked but as the relationship settles down, it moves into a phase of conflict which, as we learn more about our partner and ourselves, moves into a deeper love phase.
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Managing the conflict phase is tricky. Episodes often arise over something very silly or simple, and can escalate extremely fast into a full blown major row. We each want to win each spat, we need our point of view to be heard, and there is often huge frustration and often anger. Overcoming this is a challenge, and requires there to be goodwill on both sides and no tendency to fall into criticism, shaming, blaming or ‘stonewalling’ or ignoring the other.
It is often best to wait a few hours before having a calm conversation about what happened. The old maxim of ‘never going to sleep on an argument’ is a fallacy, because often it takes time for the heat to go out of the situation. But try and have a conversation within 24 hours. Make an appointment with the other, to sit down and have a reasonable talk, both about the incident and its subject.
Here are half a dozen points to guide you, and I suggest that both of you read this through before you have the conversation so that you are agreed that these are the principles that you will use.
1. Benefit of the doubt
Always give your partner the benefit of the doubt. After all, commitment is about putting your life in their hands, so you might as well believe their intentions are good. We all have off moments. Daily stresses and aches and pains can cause us to be insensitive or unable to be our most loving selves. This is why we need to give our partners a pass whenever possible. Studies have shown that idealising your partner is beneficial to committed relationships.
Most conflicts are the result of misunderstandings, or mis-read cues.
We think we know what our partner is thinking but we don’t. We aren’t mind-readers. Be curious instead of reactive. Get the facts before you attack. Resist your automatic impulses, wait, step back, take a breath and respond compassionately. Chances are if your partner is acting badly toward you they are probably in pain.
Whatever the argument might seem to be about, it’s aways a breakdown in the quality of the connection.
2. Repair quickly
What distinguishes successful couples from those that break-up is the ability to repair quickly. Hurt, injury and conflict are all normal, inevitable and necessary for growth within a relationship. The longer the connection is broken the harder it is to repair, so do try and have a repairing conversation within 24 hours, or sooner if you can talk calmly.
The mind is a negative magnet and during the disconnect your partner is collecting every complaint that they have ever had of you, and re-constructing your identity. You don’t want to be mistaken for the person your partner creates in your absence. Projection can be a nasty thing and the best way to prevent it is to show up in a positive way.
3. Do the opposite
A good rule of thumb is to identify what you typically do when conflict arises, and then do the opposite. If you usually withdraw, approach and stay present. If you tend to pursue your partner around the house or text them relentlessly, let it rest, step back and wait.
Another example of doing the opposite is relaxing the facial muscles. This immediately sends your partner a non-verbal cue that they are safe. Doing the opposite will be difficult and perhaps feel impossible, but you will discover it is relationship game-changer.
4. Do not set the record straight
It is important whenever conflict occurs NOT to set the record straight about what really happened. Neuroscientists have discovered that memory is unreliable. It is impossible to get an accurate account of what happened. Therefore because of the way the mind works, what happened is less important than what needs to happen.
No matter what your partner says or how they respond, do not defend or justify yourself. Do not expect your partner to take responsibility for their part. They will only see how they contributed to the problem after you have fully owned your own contribution.
5. Take Charge
There is a common confusion around the idea of taking responsibility. It is seeing your part in creating or maintaining the disconnection is equated with giving in and taking blame. We all have a fundamental aversion to being wrong. The fear of being wrong is second only to the fear of being bad, because when we were growing up accusations of either exposed us to the danger of disapproval, and therefore threatened our sense of safety. But as adults when we refuse to take responsibility in our relationships we actually diminish our personal power and constrict our range of freedom.
6. Shake off the mood
The heavy sensation that lingers after we make-up is chemical. It results from the activation of the dorsal motor vagal complex part of the brain. When our body is physically or emotionally injured the dorsal motor vagas floods the body with opiods and lowers our blood pressure causing us to feel deflated and withdrawn. It is an autonomic bodily protection response.
However, to repair our relationship we need to shake off this stupor with laughter, silliness or sex. Even if it feels inauthentic, it is important to remember that it is nothing more than a chemical residue. Our true authenticity lies in our intention to reconnect, not in our moods.
What distinguishes successful couples is the ability to repair.
How we handle the breakdown makes all the difference in the world. Don’t be discouraged by conflict. Whether disconnections are frequent or few and far between, they can deepen trust if you step into the repair mode promptly.
For more information and to get in touch with Annie, head to www.anniegurton.com