Couples Often Make These Mistakes During Conflict

Jordan Dann, Psychoanalyst

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Conflict is an inherent aspect of all close relationships. The inevitability of conflict can’t be changed, but there are lots of adjustments you and your partner can make with respect to how you think about conflict, and how you choose to behave during conflict. 

Here are the three common mistakes couples make that usually escalate conflict:

“You’re the one who has to change.”

The first mistake couples make is to assume the other person needs to change. Criticizing your partner does not encourage change. When you criticize your partner, your partner will feel threatened and in turn will become defensive, or retaliate with more criticism. Once you are both in this stand-off of threat and defense, connection and understanding will be out of reach. 

More of the same, but louder. 

If you feel your partner isn’t reachable during conflict you may feel frustrated, angry, or you may notice anxiety or fear about not getting through to them. Whatever you are feeling may lead to ratcheting up on protesting behavior, such as yelling, profanity, and name-calling. This will escalate conflict and inspire threat and defense in both of you. 

You leave, I follow. 

At some point, as conflict escalates, one partner will often “leave”. Sometimes leaving comes in the form of checking-out or shutting-down. For the individual who is “leaving”, this may actually be a form of trauma response such as “freeze” or “fawn”, that they have learned to do when they are feeling emotionally unsafe. Or, leaving may mean that the person physically leaves the room or the house in order to get distance from the emotional discomfort or threat of anger. Not surprisingly, the person expressing anger will feel abandoned or rejected by the one who “leaves”, even if the leaving is purely a self-protective mechanism. In many cases, one individual will prevent the other person from leaving, even following them from room to room, or following them out of the home.

Try experimenting with the following concepts and behavior to navigate conflict with more understanding and emotional maturity:

  • Nonviolent Language and Vulnerability: Orient towards “I” statements, instead of “you.” Such as, “I feel anxious when…” instead of “When you do X, I feel anxious…” Identify what you are feeling and then share that directly with your partner. Empathize with them when you can with statements such as, “I hear you feel angry,” or, “It sounds like you’re feeling really hurt.”
  • Join One Another: Find points of connection during conflict and name them. “It sounds like we are both feeling anxious about the future,” or “it sounds like we are both wanting more time for ourselves.” These points of shared experience can keep you both feeling connected, even as you move through conflict.
  • Consider Two Sides: Being in a partnership means that there are two different, equally valid subjective realities. Embrace “and”, instead of “but”, in order to engage with your partner’s reality. Use validation with statements such as, “you make sense to me,” and, “what you are saying makes sense.”
  • Engage Metacognition: It’s never just about the dish in the sink. Think ABOUT the conflict and think about the pattern of this conflict so that you can explore the underlying structure and dynamic. Almost every time a recurring conflict is taking place there is history back to old attachment wounds and trauma. Sometimes that trauma is from childhood, and sometimes the trauma lives within the history of the relationship.
  • Stay in the Crucible of Conflict Longer: It is totally understandable to want to eject from the discomfort of conflict. How can you take care of your nervous system by self-soothing and expanding your window of tolerance so that you can slow down, process, and learn about what is happening between you both. You may need to take a pause and return to the conflict when you are both in a calmer state. Try taking a 15 minute break, or come back in a few days after you've both had some time to reflect. 

The only way through conflict is to accept that you both have different and equally valid perspectives. If you can accept your partner is a different person, and cultivate curiosity about their difference, then you can think collaboratively and look at the conflict as a team instead of adversaries. 

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Jordan Dann is a dynamic psychoanalyst and educator. She writes extensively about her work with couples so that people can empower themselves with the knowledge to move towards increasing fulfillment, growth, and healing in their relationships.

New York, NY
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