Couples Counseling: Learning to Repair Conflict Pt. 2

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 in the previous post we look at two tools that will help you start to get off the merry-go-round of destructive conflict.

Tool 2: The Relational Cycle

Our most repetitive experiences of fighting or conflict point to not just whatever it is we're fighting about but also something else that's deeper, older and more important. Life is not perfect, we don't get everything we emotionally from our parents and our early life growing up. Fortunately though, humans are incredibly adaptive and resourceful, so we find ways to make it through. What this means though is the areas where we had need then are still in need today, they're just asleep to our awareness. When we get into intimate relationships (deep friendships, marriage or partnership, parental relationships, etc) or we sense the potential of intimacy it wakes our needs up. Meaning that when we get together with someone for marriage or partnership we are consciously or unconsciously hoping that, "this time 'round, with this person, I'll get what I need". When that doesn't happen or there is a rupture in the relationship (like when we experience our partner letting us down) we behave in the same ways we did initially when our needs weren't met. This may result in us feeling like we are "too much" or "not wanted" or "bad", all of which are messages we internalize when this happens to us in the first place. A baby or child is not advanced enough to handle the fact that their caretaker may have good parts and bad parts, so they take the bad part inwards and assign them to their own needs. This leaves the parent or caretaker free to be all good. While this alleviates stress for the child it also creates a problem of seeing their own needs as bad. When this is the case our protesting can often be more complex, it can look more passive aggressive or straight out aggressive, just depends on the mix of you and the environment.

1) We protest - we behave in a way to try and elicit what we need from the other person (in other words, we try to get the person to treat us or think about us differently).

2) We retreat - if our protest doesn't work then we walk away or shut down. This feels less upsetting than the stress of protesting but typically it also feels deflating and devitalizing or dulling.

3) We adapt - we want our need met but we know we need this relationship, so we accent the parts of our personality we sense this person accepts and likes (i.e. we become very accommodating, or we seek to secure the relationship through our achievements, etc.) and we de-accent or split off the parts of us that seemed un-tolerable or un-wanted. That way, even though we aren't feeling like a whole person, at least we have a sense of security about the relationship.

What all this means is that what we are fighting about (the toothpaste, the laundry, the chores, the bills, children, sex, etc.) is not the main thing that we are fighting about. What's really fueling the conflict and keeping us from being able to be productive together are these underlying, unmet but unspoken needs.

Couples Counseling Tool 2.1, Overland Park, KS

How to Use the Relational Cycle Tool:

Step One: you seek to understand what was it that you did not get emotionally growing up that you needed (i.e. a sense of being good enough, a sense of being being understood, a sense of being important, a sense of being seen, etc.) and then you put that into the form of a question (i.e. "am I good enough?" or "am I understandable to you or knowable to you?").

Step Two: You realize that while possibly you got a sense of "Yes" to your early question, in some pivotal ways you also got "No" and that this is what stuck with you.

Step Three: Recognize how you protested (you may have been so young when it first happened that you don't remember, often these experiences are mapped into us before we are age two.). If you don't, simply know that you probably cried or pouted or acted out in some way. This was in hopes of getting the other person to see your needs and change to meet them (i.e. "I hate you! ...can you see me now?).

Step Four: If protesting doesn't work, we move to avoidance. We stop feeling our need because it hurts too much to feel it when there's no way to get it met. So you reflect on, "how did you retreat?".

Step Five: How did you adapt? Did you become the "smart, good one?" did you become the "problematic, defiant one?" and that was how you maintained a sense of connection? There are all kinds of ways to adapt, how did you adapt?

In the next section you map out your everyday fight. See the filled out form for example.

In the final section, you combine the everyday fight with the early experience to show how you are re-enacting an event together. That both of you are experiencing the other as denying what you have always needed. And that THAT is what is fueling the fight, not so much the sex or toothpaste (although that's in there too ;)

The sideways infinity sign is a loop that others have developed to highlight this relational cycle. That is something we can learn how to use to make your relationship better in therapy.

Couples Counseling, Tool #2, Overland Park, KS