3 Steps to Resolving Marital Conflict

Photo by PeteSherrard/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by PeteSherrard/iStock / Getty Images

While fighting is inevitable and can even be a healthy thing in a relationship, bitter or habitual fighting is indicative of something deeper, something older. We all have a past and that past impacts our present thoughts/feelings and behavior. If someone hurt us in the past it primes us to (before we think) quickly put on our fighting gloves or hide behind our protective walls when someone in the present does something that reminds us of that hurt. Often these ways of relating ("gloves on" or "retreating") become so ingrained that we don't even know the patterns that are there. Dan Siegel has termed the emotional/body experience of feeling the pattern coming on as "shark music". Shark music is the JAWS music that tells our body and minds that danger is in the water and we'd better get ready if we want to survive. It's a survival mechanism that can be very helpful if you are in real danger. However it's also a mechanism that can really shoot our ability to truly be close with someone in the foot. Here are three helpful steps to take as you process habitual marital and partner conflict in order to find your patterns and break them:

Step One: Where was the shark music?

Get alone, and quiet yourself (there are several helpful meditation apps for doing this if you need help, I happen to like HeadSpace - if that's not your bag, try breathing three times in through your nose as far as you can and hold it a few seconds and then out through your mouth as far and long as you can - this activates your parasympathetic nervous system [the bit of your body that lowers your blood pressure]).

Once you can think more clearly, ask yourself "where did the shark music come in?". Go back over the conflict and identify the very moments that the music came in for you. Explore what triggered it and what it felt like in your body. Also, what thoughts and memories came into your mind. Write these down in a journal of some sorts. Also, identify, "what did I do to protect myself from the shark in the water?". Write those things down.


Step Two: Connect it to the past

Think about why the shark music came in. What happened in the argument that felt like or was exactly like what has happened before. Start with the relationship itself (where has this happened with this person before?) and then move to your larger story (where has this happened in my childhood and formative years?). Connect meaning to these memories - what happened?, what did it feel like?, what did it leave you feeling about yourself? what did it leave you assuming about how other see you or will treat you? Write these things down too.


Step Three: Find the Longing

Defenses are always in service of something healthy that we need. If the shark music started playing for you, it meant that your body was protecting you from being hurt, but it also meant you were perceiving that what you were experiencing with this person was the opposite of what you hoped for or wanted from them. Go back before and through the argument and reflect on what you hoped for from that person or those people. Was it support? Was it validation? Was it participation? What were the things you longed for? Hint, go back to your past events that you've already identified and reflect on what you needed in those moments. That will be a good road map for what you were needing in the present day. Write down your longings.


Going through these steps (especially if both partners go through them) will help you know what you need from that person to repair and get back to feeling connected, it gives you a clearer idea of what you need - which helps you say it in a way the other person can hear (which lets you have a better chance at getting your needs met!). Also it begins to give you a mindfulness about the shark music so that you can turn it off when it's not necessary andbreak the pattern of defensive/doomed arguing by choosing vulnerably to trust that your partner doesn't have to be a shark, that they could actually be there for you.