Some people like conflict. There is something almost addictive about the adrenalin release that occurs when pent-up frustrations are vented, arguments are won, and another is proved wrong. Yet in all my years of working with couples and families, I have never heard anyone say “We want more conflict!” or “Could you help us create more chaos in our life?” Consistent patterns of frequent or high conflict result in damaged relationships with those closest to us. Yet even though people don’t want the damage to continue, often it seems they can’t help themselves from repeating negative behaviours.
Why are people stuck in these damaging repetitive habits?
This question can be answered by asking a few more.
1) Could conflict actually be comforting at times? Yes, if it continues old patterns of chaos introduced in one’s own family of origin. We are comfortable with familiar patterns of behaviour, even if they are dysfunctional.
2) Does conflict serve more than one purpose? Yes – it can keep a couple at a ‘safe’ distance from each other – if you prevent someone from getting too close, then you don’t have to be vulnerable and reveal parts of yourself that you are insecure about. Years ago John Powell wrote a very simple book entitled, “Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?” His answer essentially was “Because if I tell you who I am, and you don’t like me, that is all I have.” We protect ourselves from rejection by keeping others distant. There is risk involved in creating a relationship of vulnerability and trust. Conflict may also fulfill the purpose of maintaining a specific power balance. Certain individuals may be afraid of losing “power” in a relationship if they allow the other to “win”, so they keep their winning stance at all costs.
3) Is it possible to end old habits of continued conflict? Yes, if you sincerely make a decision to create and practise new ways of connecting and communicating.
The impact of conflict
Conflicts escalate quickly when we give or receive highly aroused, negative emotion such as anger, critical judgement or disrespect. Whenever emotional arousal is very high, quality of judgement suffers, and the emotional balance needed to communicate effectively is lost.
Angry responses are often accompanied with defensiveness resulting from an underlying sense of being emotionally, mentally and/or physically threatened. The body responds to threat (either internal or external) by eliciting an adrenalin response or a stress reaction – we are set up to either “fight or flee”. Physiologically our body is prepared for action – but this is accompanied by reduced analytical skills. This response is not helpful when it comes to calmly and rationally resolving problems. Defensiveness occurs in heated moments followed by criticism, invalidations, refusals to listen and harsh sarcasm which undermine the safety and trust in a relationship.
Changing the habits of conflict
- Commit to creating new patterns of resolving differences. Make a concrete decision regarding what you want your relationship to be like. Write it down.
- Set an interpersonal goal for yourself. Specify an action you will take when potential conflict arises. A goal such as calming yourself for 5 seconds before responding to criticism may thwart escalating defensiveness.
- Practise calming yourself daily. Use relaxation strategies. Objectively rate an event in light of the anger it deserves versus the level of actual anger it elicits for you. Practise bringing your levels of anger down with an imaginary dimmer switch.
- Take a “Time Out” when conflict heats up. Best discussed and agreed upon before you are in conflict, this is an agreement you both make to take a break to calm down. Decide together when the “Time In” will be rescheduled to resolve issues.
- Become aware of your triggers. Specific things others do can create an intense negative emotional response on your part. Is it when you feel ignored or hear a certain tone of voice? The more you are aware of the triggers in your life, the less potent they will be, especially if you can envision calm responses.
- Understand the others’ sensitivities. Overreactions are often the result of defensiveness and self-protection against similar cues to past woundings. Don’t use this against them.
- Take responsibility for your own words and behaviour. Avoid blame. Avoid rationalizing your poor treatment of another.
- Leave conflicts positively. Let the other know you care about them no matter what your differences are. In this way you let them know that your relationship is more important than “being right”.
Learning to resolve our differences with calm dialogue increases our understanding of others. Even established patterns of conflict can be changed to habits of connection and closeness, when we act on our commitment to change, one day at a time.