Couples Counseling: Learning to Repair Conflict Part One

Photo by alphaspirit/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by alphaspirit/iStock / Getty Images

Is fighting bad?

Not necessarily, fighting can actually be a sign of life, showing we still care enough to try and get the other person to see what we need from them. In fact, according to John Gottman (the field's foremost couples researcher) conflict is required for building intimacy. Intimacy (or "in-to-me-see" as my colleague, Grant Wood says) is that deep sense of connection with another person and it's what we long for when we couple or partner up. Intimacy is what sustains us and makes us better as people.

However, because of all the clever ways we learn to protect ourselves from being hurt emotionally growing up (often these protective ways are actually unconscious to us) being super vulnerable with someone (even the one you love) can be really hard. In this post and next we will look at two tools that will help you start to get off the merry-go-round of destructive conflict.

Tool One: The Three Levels of Experience (A.K.A. It's probably not just about the dishwasher)

Every moment has three levels of experience to it. Identifying the level of the moment or issue helps couples know what they're dealing with and what's really needed for repair.

Level One: This moment with you.

Each moment has a certain emotional experience to it, in the case of conflict this is usually hurt or frustration. If the hurt feels new and only related to the moment it will feel mildly annoying and won't unhinge someone. Repair can come by addressing the moment (i.e. an apology like, "I get it, I can see what you're saying. It wasn't my intention to upset you. I'm sorry.").

Level Two: This moment with you + that other moment with you + that other moment with you...

If the emotional experience is one that has been repeatedly felt through out the relationship, and not dealt with, it has the potential to cause a medium to big fight. Listen to yourself and your partner for cues that this might be happening. Cues like connecting this moment to past ones. These types of ruptures tend to cause people to start using "always" language like, "you never do this" or "you always do that to me". This is not a good idea. You want to avoid "always" language so to not cause more reactive anger or defensiveness.

In these cases the whole history of hurts really needs to be identified, processed, validated and mended [this means both sides understanding and non-defensively owning the entire history of the hurts]. A simple apology for the moment will not feel satisfying, in fact it might feel enraging [i.e. "I'll believe it when I see it!".

Level Three - This moment with you + that other moment with you + My life of moments like this.

If the emotional experience is one that has been repeatedly felt in life, especially when you were growing up as a child, it has the potential to really shake you up on the inside. This is because when we "couple up" as adults we are all secretly hoping that what we didn't get, but needed, growing up with our parents we will now get with our spouse or partner. When that fails to happen, when we once again get let down in our place of need, it activates a life long pain in us. This can often signal an unconscious fear that our needs are actually bad or in-tolerable to others and we will be forever stuck with this longing that cannot be met. This often feels like a sense of helplessness, worthlessness, thoughtlessness, irritability to overwhelming rage, a dullness on the can show up in any number of ways.

At this level, it's important to note that the partner is not the cause of the original pain and they therefore do not need to atone for the original loss. Let me be clear, YES, they need to address the moment and YES, they need to acknowledge and own their participation in hurting or upsetting you in the relationship but you yourself also need to work to find out what you need and how you can communicate that need in a way your partner can understand. Only through a two way process like that can new ways of being with each other emerge (Because often your response to them letting you down is experienced by them as being let down by you. This causes a cycle of back and forth reactions that lead to nothing but hurt and exhaustion). Often these third level hurts are the hardest to talk about because they cause the most damage (inside us and in our relationships) and they require processing all the ways you felt hurt like that growing up and then processing how those hurt continue to get re-enacted in the marriage or partnership today! Not easy stuff.