One tele-therapy session after the other , I notice the tension and dis-ease between 2 people who fill up my screen. In the confines of a screen I get to notice a lot more than when I have the same couple sitting on my therapy couch. I see the fear in their eyes, the tightness in their jaws, and the glances of longing that they throw at each other.
Locked up has not only brought a sexlessness to couples relationships, but also thrown a strobe light on all the relationship differences and issues that they managed to conceal or paper over, when living their best lives. Glaringly , they now stand in the full light of this awareness : they just do not know how to fight or manage conflict, in a healthy and positive manner.
In other words, couples are becoming aware that they really do not “know” his/her/they partner. And to fight well, to manage conflict in a healthy helpful way, you really do need to know your partner. Knowing your partner means knowing their early childhood injuries. It is in early childhood that we learn different ways of attaching to a parent, and thus learn how to manage anxiety . And managing your own anxiety is the key to healthy conflict.
For the couples who had just met, or were in the full bloom of an early relationship and decided to lock down together, my heart is with you . After week 2 you realised that the sensations of butterflies in their guts and pounding hearts you had , anticipating being with this person, or when actually being with the person, are now signs of anxiety- not excitement. You have not yet learned each other’s early childhood stories and thus do not “know ” each other’s injuries – styles of attachment.
Put 2 people together in one confined space for a number of weeks, with no escape possible, removing their usual means of coping with daily anxiety, (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gym , work, socialising ) and pow wow , tempers will flare. Emotions are dysregulated, old childhood injuries are triggered, and you have the perfect set up for conflict between 2 people. 2 people who do not “know” each other.
I invite you to think about the way you usually respond in times of conflict with a partner. Your brain is wired to get you to respond in 3 main ways : fight, flight . freeze. Some of you want to run, some want to hide and some of you disconnect through freezing. And others go into “fawn” which is seeking to please your partner by doing many pleasing behaviours in order to reconnect again. All of these response lead to detachment and disconnection from each other.
And at moments of conflict, what is most needed is connection to create safety and security again .
- Notice how you currently manage conflict. John Gottman is an American psychological researcher and clinician who did extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability. Based on his research he created The Sound Relationship House
This is a practical approach to help couples break through barriers to achieve greater understanding, connection, and intimacy in their relationships.
- Build Love Maps.: get to know each other by being curious about each other’s internal world.
- Share Fondness and Admiration.- ongoing verbal and practical demonstrations of fondness and admiration
- Turn Towards Instead of Away.- attach rather than detach from each other
- The Positive Perspective.- seek out and state the positives you see in each other- daily
- Manage Conflict.
- Make Life Dreams Come True.- facilitate your partner’s individual dreams being realised
- Create Shared Meaning.- create couple goals /dreams.
Consider how sound your relationship is – how many of these stages do you honour in your partnership?
According to Gottman , conflict comes galloping in which is why he refers to Conflict as the Four Horsemen.
Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them and replacing them with healthy, productive communication patterns. Consider what horseman you most frequently use in your relationship with your partner.
2. Know your partner’s childhood story. Respect any refusal to share. It may just be too painful and traumatic .
Infant /parental attachment forms the very foundation of future attachments to an intimate partner. Knowing their attachment style enables you to understand why your partner reacts the way he/she/they do during conflict. There are 4 types of attachment styles:
- SECURE ATTATCHMENT Securely attached people tend to be less anxious and more satisfied with their relationships. They have an easier time forming connections. They equally are happy alone and when with a partner.
- ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT Tend to worry more about their relationships . They experience an ’emotional hunger’ and are desperate for a fantasy type of love. When they are afraid of losing their partner, they can become clingy, possessive, paranoid, or need constant attention.
- AVOIDANT /AMBIVALENT ATTACHMENT attachers tend to be emotionally distant from their partners. Avoidant attachers take pride in their independence and can see attachment as weakness.they can shut themselves down during conflict or close themselves off from their feelings
- DISORGANISED ATTACHMENT : They volley between desperately needing their partner and pushing them away. They can smother their partner and next they can disappear for a day or two without explanation .
3. Self compassion, self care, kindness
By noticing your own conflict responses and knowing your own and your partner’s attachment styles, you will be able to practice what is most required in a healthy conflict. Namely, you will understand why your partner is shutting down or why your partner demands you stay in the same room and resolve the issue. You will understand why you want to run away and hide or your partner wants to get drunk to escape the uncomfortable feelings that feel uncontrollable.
Kindness, compassion for self and other will enable you two to self soothe and eventually and respectfully turn towards each other.
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