Why conflict-avoidant couples are heading for trouble

“Every relationship needs an argument every now and then. Just to prove that it is strong enough to survive. Long-term relationships, the ones that matter, are all about weathering the peaks and the valleys.” -Melchor Lim

It used to be thought that couple therapy should focus on increasing harmony between the partners, but these days there’s a growing recognition that being able to have healthy conflict is really important.

Of course, some couples fight a lot and that can corrode the relationship if partners end up feeling attacked or disrespected. But in many relationships there is a fear of allowing too much conflict and that, in its own way, can be equally corrosive as when there is a high level of conflict.

There’s a great interview here with author Ian Leslie,  discussing his recent book Conflicted* . The interview begins by looking at conflict in rock bands, such as the Beatles, but it you’re mostly interested in the couple relationship stuff you could begin from about the 20 minute mark.

Leslie says there used to be an assumption that arguments should be avoided. But it’s actually the couples who are willing to argue about something that is important to them that tend to be happier: “[For those couples] it can get quite heated and it can get quite passionate and it’s not always super pleasant, but it’s seen as part of the rhythm of the relationship and it doesn’t signal some terrible flaw.”

In 2008 New Zealand academic Nickola Overall, began filming couples discussing a problem in their relationship. The study,  cited in Conflicted, returned to the same couples a year later and found that those couples who were more willing to argue had made most progress with the problem.

For many couples, however, they can find themselves repeatedly arguing about the same thing without ever resolving it. This is where couple therapy can help because the therapist can introduce a different perspective and help them see the issue in a new way.

Another key point  is that it’s not just being willing to argue that is important but how a couple argues.

If we’re angry and we’re just out to shame or insult our partner that’s going to end badly. Equally unhealthy is a kind of constant, low level bickering that saps the joy out of any relationship.

I think it’s about us being willing to show we’re annoyed about something that’s important to us and to allow things to get heated. It’s about allowing in passion. We may sometimes say the ‘wrong’ thing in these arguments or feel uncomfortable because we’ve got angry, but that’s ok.

By expressing our frustration, or even our anger, we have allowed our partner to see what’s really important to us. In a strange way, by allowing ourselves to be in confllict we are also communicating to them that they, and the relationship, are important.

  • Leslie, Ian. (2021), Conflicted, Faber & Faber, London.

For more information visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

How to reduce defensiveness when things get heated

There’s so much confrontation around these days, often fanned by social media, but often it just leads to people sticking in their own bubble and not really hearing what the other side is saying

And that often occurs also in couple relationships. Each person feels misunderstood and not really listened to and so defensiveness enters the interaction and feelings escalate.

Confrontation is sometimes necessary. But, generally, for things to improve in the longer term it’s important for both sides to feel respected and heard.

This struck me when listening to a BBC Radio Four documentary about reducing escalations when police officers are questioning someone. In the programme Robin Engel, a University of Cincinatti criminologist, says that what seems to work is when police are trained to slow things down and build rapport with the person they are questioning.

When officers take a bit of time to build rapport with someone they have stopped by, for example, using the person’s name or adopting a friendly tone, there is less likelihood of violence. 

It turns out that when someone stopped by police feels they are being treated in a respectful way, they are less likely to become defensive and more likely to be cooperative. 

This is a finding confirmed by Ian Leslie in his book Conflicted*, which argues that the beginnings of any potentially challenging interaction are extremely important. When, at the beginning, an attempt is made to connect with the other person, it is far more likely to result in a constructive discussion even if there are important differences between the two people. 

Leslie says: “Humans have a deep rooted tendency to respond to each other in kind”. He adds that we take our cues from the person we’re talking to. If they seem interested in us and our ideas, we will tend to treat them in a similar way. If we feel they’ve made their mind up about us and we feel judged, then almost inevitably we will be closed and defensive.

I think much of this applies to couple relationships. When our partner does something we don’t like it is common to want to tell them what they’ve done ‘wrong’. Frequently, this then leads to a familiar argument in which both partners try to show they’re right.

What happens in couple disagreements is we often find ourselves in a power struggle. We’ve moved away from a disagreement towards a zero-sum ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ position. By that point both partners have given up listening to the other person.

What can help build rapport in couple therapy is reflective listening. In this approach partner A says something that they feel is important. Partner B just listens and then repeats back to partner A what they heard. Partner A is given the opportunity to correct partner B’s summary is anything important has been missed out.

It sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder to do. This is because we are so used to only half listening to our partner, especially if they are saying something critical. Reflective listening forces us to listen and take in what they are saying. For both partners, being listened to in this way can break the logjam of poor communication and enable the building of rapport over time.

*Leslie, Ian. (2021), Conflicted, Faber and Faber, London.

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Couple therapy – making sense of emotions

Recognising and naming what we are feeling is a valuable part of couple therapy, but it’s not something that comes easily to most of us.

It is important to learn how to recognise and name what we’re feeling because, in one sense, we are what we feel.  It is often through our feelings that we reveal ourselves to others, that they get an understanding of what we want, what we’re passionate about, what moves us. And that helps create intimacy.

Identifying what we are feeling is also essential for us  as individuals in terms of knowing and understanding ourselves.

But unfortunately many of us are not fully aware of what we’re feeling and, even when we are, we may be reluctant to share that with our partner for fear of appearing silly or being judged. 

This can apply, in particular,  to emotions such as sadness or vulnerability, as many of us are brought up to see these as examples of weakness. Similarly, for many people acknowledging anger is very uncomfortable because in many families the children are given the message that it is not acceptable to show anger. 

There is also a very strong problem-solving attitude in our culture. One that says, “it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling, just focus on the solution.” While that may be an appropriate response in some situations, in couple problems it doesn’t work because usually part of the “solution” is working with the emotions that are present and allowing them to help point us towards a new experience of being with our partner. 

As couple therapist Robert Taibbi says*, part of the therapist’s job is to draw out new emotions: “Your job is to change the communication, to stir the emotional pot. You’re moving toward the holes, looking for what they are not saying. This is where their anxieties and, ultimately, the solutions lie. “

Often in couple there will be a mirroring – one partner may be rather emotionally contained and the other “over emotional”. While not always the case, in heterosexual couples there is often a gender aspect, with the man finding it harder to name what he is feeling.

When I’m working with couples I’m often trying to get them to be clear about emotions. So, rather than “upset”, I ask if they mean “upset angry” or “upset sad”, as there is a big difference between the two. 

I may also introduce “feeling” language into my comments in the session. For example, “I’m wondering if that was annoying for you when Jill said that?” Or, if a client seems to be wiping away imaginary tears, I may offer the suggestion that they may have been feeling sad. 

For people who are rather detached from their emotions it can be difficult when they are asked questions about how they are feeling, so I sometimes offer the idea that there are four primary emotions – fear, sadness, joy and anger – and ask which of those primary feelings is closest to what they are feeling. This can help open up something new in the conversation between the couple. 

When we are able to say what we are feeling and have our partner acknowledge it, we can feel validated. This is something that a couples therapist can help with, encouraging and coaching the one partner to simply acknowledge the feelings of the other partner.

Acknowledgement is not agreement. We are not saying that because parent A is angry that means partner B is in the wrong. We are instead saying that partner A is angry and partner B can acknowledge that reality without immediately feeling the need to defend themselves. A further step can be taken in the therapy, whereby partner B not only acknowledges the other person’s anger but also is able to understand why they my be feeling angry. 

For clients who really struggle to know what they are feeling I may suggest they keep an emotions diary between sessions. This is something that can be easily done using a small notebook or mobile phone, just jotting down several times a day what they are feeling at that moment and (if they know) why they may be having that feeling. 

Part of the process of identifying emotions is understanding that sometimes we use one emotion to hide another. This is particularly so with anger and sadness. Some people major in sadness and find it very hard to acknowledge anger, perhaps because that was a taboo in their family of origin. For others it’s the opposite – they can get angry easily but sadness is taboo. Helping these individuals acknowledge and feel the underlying emotion can be valuable in creating a more authentic connection within the relationship. 

Doing Couple Therapy, Robert Taibbi, 2009, The Guilford Press.

Why detaching from conflict can kill a relationship

Many people believe that fighting is bad in a relationship and of course that’s true if the arguing is toxic and non productive. However, for a couple therapist the worst indicator for the relationship is  when one of the partners seems to have given up.

This partner may have got to the stage where everything seems to hopeless that they detach from the relationship – they no longer even care enough to get angry.

This roughly equates to what couple therapist and researcher John Gottman describes as stonewalling and he argues it’s the most damaging pattern in a relationship.

It is when one partner withdraws from interaction with the other, as he or she is feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. When there is a problem in the relationship the woman will sometimes insist on long talks late into the night to try and resolve it but this can leave the man feeling drained. If he withdraws emotionally in this situation, his partner can then feel she is not being valued and she in turn begins to withdraw.

I’ve seen this pattern often in couple therapy, especially if there has been a betrayal by the man and his partner wants to go over the details again and again. She has a need to try and understand as much as possible about what happened but he feels interrogated and is afraid of not remembering something important and getting into worse trouble.

According to Gottman’s research men are much more likely to stonewall than women. They may try to avoid arguments, perhaps because they don’t believe the arguing is helping, but the net result can be that the woman begins to detach and this can be a major indicator that the relationship is dying.

When one partner is angry about something in the relationship it shows that that person at least cares, even if it is uncomfortable for both partners. When one partner emotionally checks out it is far more damaging because it suggests that they have given up believing that things can change.

Part of the answer to this conundrum is not to remove conflict from the relationship – as if that were possible – but to learn how to handle conflict differently.

Couple therapy can help the partners learn ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings in a way that the other person can truly understand. It can help the couple express underlying feelings, such as vulnerability or grief, rather than sticking to anger and judgment. Allowing in these unacknowledged emotions can shift the dynamic. 

Couples can also be helped to understand whether there is anything in the current situation that echoes what may have happened in their childhood. Frequently, we unconsciously bring unresolved issues from the past to our adult relationships and untangling this knot can help lessen the emotional temperature.

The Distancer-Pursuer Dynamic

You may have noticed, in your own relationship, that often one partner really wants something from the other partner and becomes extremely frustrated when they don’t get it.

I have had many couple clients who bring this kind of problem and I have seen it at work in my own relationship – and it can be very painful!

The way it works is one partner pushes for something and the other partner won’t give it, or won’t give it in the way that the first partner wants it. This is called the distancer-pursuer dynamic.

The pursuer is the one wanting something and the distancer is the partner who is not giving it. Usually both partners end up feeling that they are being unfairly treated.

Here are some common things that people caught in the distancer-pursuer ‘dance’ may say:

Him (pursuer): “Most of the time, when I want sex, she knocks me back.”

Her (distancer): “He’s always wanting sex – it makes me feel pressured and even less in the mood.”

Or:

Her (pursuer): “Whenever I try to have an intimate conversation, he seems more interested in watching TV or checking his phone.”

Him (distancer): “She’s always trying to have deep conversations – I feel like I don’t have time to just chill out.”

The more the pursuer makes demands or vents his or her frustration, the more the distancer feels under pressure and even less likely to give the pursuer what they want.

The object of the pursuer can be one of many things – sex, attention, affection, emotional intimacy, appreciation. But the actual thing being pursued is less important than the dynamic that is being played out.

The important point to realise is that the distance between the two partners always remains the same in this behaviour pattern, so as the pursuer tries to get closer the distancer moves away. Uncomfortable as it is, in my experience it is often the case that both partners unconsciously make sure that they stay stuck in the pattern.

But why would the couple make sure they stay in this painful pattern, even on an unconscious level?

Basically, it is because the distancer-pursuer dynamic enables both partners to avoid some of the challenges of intimacy, while blaming each other.

The dynamic regulates the emotional closeness within the relationship. While we all may say we want a close relationship with our partner, in reality we move between a desire for closeness/relationship and a desire to autonomy or independence. This is one of the fundamental challenges of being in a relationship.

In their book Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy, Nick Duffell and Helena Lovendal argue that the distancer-pursuer dynamic is a way for the couple to try and manage the conflict between closeness and autonomy.

They say: “We can establish lifelong patterns of one wanting more and the other less, one wanting closeness and the other space. We can play these games till we die and many couples do.”

The dynamic may go both ways, so that in certain areas one partner is the distancer while in a different area it is the other partner. A common pattern is for men to be the pursuer when it comes to sex and women when it concerns emotional intimacy.

John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships,  highlights how the dynamic reveals the early wounding we may have experienced with parents. One partner may have experienced an intrusive parent and thus fears engulfment in adult relationships, while another may have had a parent who was distant and so felt abandoned.

He says: “Many people suffer from some of each, resulting in a ‘push-pull’ relationship, where one partner pursues when the other is pulling away, but then retreats when the other comes forward.”

In a future post I will go into this dynamic in more details and talk about how we can respond, when we find ourselves caught in it.

Why couple therapy won’t ‘fix’ your relationship in the way you expect

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then 9504443699_d6effb8b17_zgradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

The quote above, from the Austrian poet Rilke, says something about the couple therapy process and how changes in a relationship are often achieved not by applying a new technique but rather by a gradual shift in awareness and perspective.

Many couples who are struggling in their relationships come to therapy to be fixed. Or, more accurately, they come to get their partner ‘fixed’. They hope that the therapist will tell their partner what he or she needs to do differently or what techniques the couple needs to put into practice in order to solve the problem they come with.

While there is a place for techniques and tools in helping couples tackle their problems, it is naive to think that these alone will lead to sustained improvements.

In my experience couple therapy is more of a stuttering, unpredictable process than a linear improvement. Over time I would expect a couple’s relationship to improve but it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. There may be periods where nothing seems to be improving at all.

But if the couple is able to stick with the process and hold a little less tightly their desire for a solution to their problem, something different can emerge.

Often that something different comes from each partner being willing to feel their pain, and sometimes to share it, without immediately blaming the other person.

Frequently one of the things that needs to happen in couple therapy is for each person to understand how they have contributed to the stuck place the couple finds itself in. Once we begin to recognise our own responsibility we can then stop pointing the finger so quickly at our partner. This takes the pressure off them a little, which can open up a space for something new to enter the relationship.

In my own relationship I’ve found that, when I’m unhappy about something, the simple act of being heard by my partner can make a difference. It often means that the thing that was annoying me so much doesn’t seem quite so difficult any more.

As couples we can sometimes get stuck in an “I win, you lose”  mentality, in which power struggles take over and we feel that unless we get our way it will be unbearable. The reality is that it is always going to be difficult for two people to share their lives and that we need to find ways of making space for the differences but still allowing each person to have their feelings acknowledged.

John Welwood, one of my favourite writers on relationships, says in his book Journey of the Heart, : “Techniques rarely have any impact when used as short cuts, to bypass letting a difficulty affect us, work on us and move us to find our own genuine response to it.”

(Photo courtesy of Tom Blackwell, creative commons, at Flickr.com)

 

 

What scares us about intimacy

I think that most of us, if asked, would say that we want an intimate relationship with someone. A relationship in which we can truly be ourselves and feel close.

So why is it that so many people struggle to find this in life?

This is a complex question. But one strand to it is the fear of either being engulfed by our partner or being abandoned. In other words, we can experience our partner as either too loving/controlling/intrusive/demanding or too absent/uninterested/cold.

Our experience as infants can feed into this drama and prime us to see relationships through a particular lens. For example, an infant may experience their primary caregiver (usually mum) as being “too present” and not providing enough space and freedom for the child to explore. This chid may grow up to experience a fear of being smothered or controlled in adult relationships.

However, an infant experiencing their caregiver as sometimes cold or uninterested may be particularly sensitive to what they experience as rejection or abandonment in adult intimate relationships.

“Engulfment fears generally lead to withdrawal in relationships, while abandonment fears lead to clinging,” says therapist John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.

Each partner may at times feel a fear of engulfment or a fear of abandonment, but often each person gravitates towards a particular stance. This obviously creates tension and unhappiness.

“She’s always trying to get me to do things with her, but hates it when I just want to relax watching some sport on the TV,” he says. Or she may comment, “He seems more interested in his job and his friends than in me – I feel like he doesn’t love me.”

The effect of this is that one partner is often pushing for something more, while the other is trying to pull away – which is known as a push-pull effect.

Partners can be stuck in this dynamic for years, without understanding why they can’t seem to get genuinely close. Or people can change partners and then find the same patterns of push-pull in each new relationship.

Part of the way out of this stuck pattern is understanding how our early experiences may have influenced the way we relate to people as adults. If we can feel empathy and compassion for ourselves as a child, who felt either deprived or dominated by parents, we may be able to see our partner more clearly and take his or her behaviour less personally.

We may also find ourselves, gradually, being able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner and to let go of judging them.  Which is a good foundation for truer intimacy.

Why acknowledging our wounding helps our relationship

While most parents do the best they can, they cannot be perfect.

All of us, I would argue, have some degree of emotional wounding from childhood and the particular wounding we bring will be triggered in our intimate relationships.

While that may sound negative, and can cause lots of problems in relationships, it is also potentially positive because when we can acknowledge our own wounds – and become more aware of our partner’s – a healing can take place in the relationship.

Unfortunately, many adults are unaware of, or have buried, their emotional wounding. So, when their wounds are activated in their relationship they blame their partner for it.

Our wounding

For some children the wounding they receive from parents, or others with power over them, is severe – emotional, physical or even sexual abuse.

For many others the wounding may have been less traumatic. It could have been a parent who was not able to meet your needs because of a busy job or other commitments. Or perhaps having a sibling who seemed to get more attention or approval from one or both parents.

Some children will have grown up with a parent who was quick to anger or was controlling in other ways.

In some cases the child may have got the message that they were valued more for their achievements – their academic grades or sports performance – than just for themselves.

How it is triggered by our partner

As adults we take these earlier wounds into our relationships with partners, where they often get activated in a painful way.

Here are some examples:

  •  coupleKaren grew up with an angry father who sometimes scared her. She picked a husband who seemed very calm, but he seems annoyed more often and she feels afraid and panicked.
  • As a child Peter felt that his mother often disapproved of his behaviour, even though he tried to be a good boy. He now finds that his partner seems often disappointed in him and feels that he can never get it right for her.
  • Sarah’s father abandoned the family when she was a girl. In her adult relationships she finds herself with men who, for different reasons, seem to let her down and whom she finds it difficult to trust.

These are just some examples – there are many more.

Acknowledging and staying open to our wounding

One of the opportunities in couple therapy is for both partners to recognise and acknowledge – often for the first time – the wounds that they may be carrying from childhood.

Therapist John Welwood, in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, says that when we find ourselves shutting down in our relationship it is often because our partner’s emotional wounds have triggered our own wounding.

So, our partner may be angry about something but because we associate that anger with rejection, we shut down when they are angry. Instead of shutting down, when our partner triggers our wounds, we can try and stay open to what we are feeling and to what is going on for our partner.

“If my partner and I can learn to speak together about the wounded places that give rise to our emotional reactions, this will also help us remain more awake when the wounds are triggered,” says Welwood.

My experience in working with couples is that when they are both able to talk about and feel the feelings of that earlier wound, something can shift in their relationship. Each is able to soften slightly, and to offer their partner (and themselves) more understanding and compassion.

“Coming to terms with our woundedness helps us navigate the complex emotional dynamics of human relationship and gradually bring a more all-embracing love into this world,” says Welwood.

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

Are you a rescuer, persecutor or victim in your relationship?

Many couples that run into problems find themselves on the ‘drama triangle’. This is a model that maps the unhelpful behaviour patterns couples can find themselves in. It was developed by US psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in the 1970s.

The persecutor, rescuer and victim are all roles that people in relationships can play. These roles interact with each other, so there is always someone in a more powerful position and someone with less power.

triangleWhile individuals may shift between the different roles, they usually feel more comfortable in one of the roles, due to their personality and the behaviour patterns in their family growing up.

What are the roles?

A rescuer will often have grown up in a family where the child’s needs were not acknowledged and so he or she grew up looking after others’ needs in order to feel loved. The rescuer was the good, responsible child who avoids confrontation.

The victim got the message from their family that they were not able to handle their own problems and so grew up expecting others to step in and make things okay. They can often feel anxious about things.

The persecutor is the person who criticizes their partner. But it is important to realise that underneath the persecutor is a victim – someone who, as a child, did not have their needs met and often feels powerless. Putting their partner down helps them escape their inner self of low self-worth and makes them feel powerful.

A rescuer can be controlling

Often couples will begin their relationship with one of them in the rescuer role and the other in victim role. The rescuer gives the victim the message: “You need me to help you – just do what I tell you.” While the rescuer seems helpful and nice on the outside, they are actually being quite controlling of their partner.

The person in the victim role often feels their problems are overwhelming and they can’t cope.

The two make an unofficial deal – that the rescuer will get to feel good about themselves and feel that they are in charge, while the victim gets looked after and doesn’t have to take responsibility.

Becoming the persecutor

What can happen is that the rescuer gets fed up with their role, maybe they feel their efforts are not fully appreciated or they just feel tired out. So they then start to criticise their partner, therefore becoming the persecutor.

Another possibility is that the victim gets fed up with being the victim and becomes critical (the persecutor), which makes their partner into the victim.

The way out

The way to help a couple step out of the drama triangle is to, first, get them to see what is going on and how the two of them are usually playing one or other role. With this awareness the members of the couple can be encouraged to take more responsibility for their needs by accessing their inner ‘adult’.

The adult is that part of us that does not take too much responsibility for our partner (the rescuer), neither does it expect our partner to make us feel good (the victim). The adult is able to clearly express what he or she wants, instead of trying to manipulate or intimidate their partner to get what their needs met.