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.

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)

 

 

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.

How what annoys us in our partner can teach us what we need

 

 One of the common themes in couple therapy is each partner complaining about behaviour in the other that they find really hard to deal with. ‘If only my partner would change that behaviour, then everything would be ok,’ they say to themselves.

A common example in heterosexual couples is the ‘rational’ man who finds his partner’s emotionality irritating, while she complains that he is too logical and unfeeling. Or there is the partner who is fiery and sometimes quick to anger, while the other is extremely laid back and avoids conflict.

Another instance is where one partner is very responsible, in areas such as household finances,  while the other is much more spontaneous and loves splashing out on purchases.

Opposites attract

arguing couple.thbThe interesting thing about these kind of ‘opposites attract’ couples is that, when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that often they found their partner’s differences endearing in the early stages of their relationship. So, the over-rational man was charmed and excited by his girlfriend’s high emotions, while she felt somehow secure with someone who seemed so stable.

But this initial appreciation of differences can begin to fade when the honeymoon period is over, which is usually from six months to two years into the relationship. A major life event, such as the birth of a first child, can also bring to an end this phase. At the end of the honeymoon period these opposite qualities in the other person start to seem less attractive. In fact, they can become downright annoying.

‘I loved her fieriness at the beginning, it was exciting. But now it feels more like she’s always nagging,’ he complains. She replies: ‘His laid-back nature was very reassuring when we started going out, but now it feels like he’s so determined to avoid an argument that we never resolve problems.’

Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone describe this process in their book Embracing Each Other, arguing that we are all made up of many different parts or selves. Some of these parts we feel comfortable with and others we unconsciously ‘disown’ because they were not welcomed by our family or environment growing up.

When we are in an intimate relationship all these different parts, or sub personalities, are present, they say: ‘It is not just two people who sit down for a nice, friendly, sensible chat. We each have within us numerous selves or sub personalities, each vying for attention, trying to get its needs met.’

Viewing the problem as potentially healing

A couples therapist who works in a soulful way will view the kinds of relational conflicts couples bring as not necessarily negative but as potentially playing a positive role in helping each individual to grow and mature.

This is because, although the process of falling in love is mysterious, we are often attracted to people who have a quality that we have disowned or repressed in ourselves.

So, for example, a child may grow up in a family where showing anger is taboo or the opposite,  where one of the parents is excessively angry. The child may then, unconsciously, repress his anger because it feels wrong or scary. But it is not just his anger but also his fieriness or willingness to risk confrontation by sticking up for himself that is also repressed. As an adult he may find himself attracted to fiery women because they carry that part of him that he has disowned and, at some level, misses in himself.

The therapist can help each partner to move away from such strong judgments of their partner, and instead help the individual to get in touch with their own disowned qualities. In this way, each partner can take responsibility for their own psychological growth and therefore not expect their partner to ‘carry’ all the anger or all the vulnerability or whatever the quality is that is being disowned.

 

 

The ‘four horsemen’ of relationship breakdown

American couple therapist John Gottman has been researching for many years the reasons why relationships fail.

He has identified four important reasons, which he names the Four Horsemen. These are:

  • Criticism – which is often expressed by saying ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’
  • Contempt – insulting or putting someone down in a way that shows you think they are inferior.
  • Defensiveness – not taking responsibility for your behaviour and instead criticizing the other or finding excuses.
  • Stonewalling – refusing to talk about something or withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict. In reality, the partner who stonewalls is withdrawing as a means of punishing the other because they are communicating separation and disapproval.

In gender terms, women are more likely to criticize and men to stonewall. So, a woman may crticise her partner, who then stonewalls by ignoring her comments or withdrawing and this makes the woman angrier and so she criticizes even more.

Of these four behaviours, the most important in determining whether a relationship will survive or not is contempt. Where there is contempt expressed by one or both partners there is far less chance of them staying together.

It’s important to realise that contempt does not just mean insulting the other person but can also include sarcastic comments or even rolling your eyes to other people when your partner says something you don’t like.

The reason contempt is so poisonous to a relationship is because it is not just criticizing the other person, it is putting yourself in a superior position. It is a rejection of the other person.

Criticism vs complaint

It is better to complain, rather than criticize. By complain, I mean expressing your feeling, such as annoyance or hurt, about a specific behaviour of your partner.

Criticism is often more generalised and blaming. It often includes phrases like ‘you always…’ ‘you never…’ ‘you’re the sort of person who…’. It is hard for someone to respond constructively to this kind of criticism and they are more likely to become defensive.

A complaint would be: ‘When you forgot to get me a present for our anniversary I felt hurt and angry.’ A criticism would be: ‘You never show your appreciation for me – you just don’t care.’

Handling conflict in relationships

Picture 7

When we are annoyed or hurt by something our partner has said or done, how can we express our feelings in a way that they will really hear what we are saying?

A common approach in couple conflicts is to accuse our partner of ‘making’ us feel angry, upset or sad by their behaviour. While at times it might be ok to use this approach – sometimes we need to blow off steam – it often fails, as it tends to put the other person on the defensive.  It also allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our feelings.

This kind of criticism is often accompanied by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, such as, ‘You always take the kids’ side against me’ or ‘You never listen to me’. Again, this kind of blaming language is unlikely to get the other person to genuinely talk about the grievance you have.

While there needs to be a place for argument and conflict in any relationship, if a couple is in the habit of dealing with conflict in an accusatory and blaming way it is unlikely to help resolve problems.

Compassionate communication

One approach to avoiding this kind of blaming is called ‘compassionate communication’, also known as ‘nonviolent communication’. This approach, developed by American Marshall Rosenberg,  can be used with our partners or anyone else we may find ourselves in conflict with. It has four components:

  • Observation – we tell the other person what they are doing that we don’t like. But we do this without judging the behaviour.
  • Feelings – we say how we feel when they behave like this: afraid? Sad? Hurt? Irritated?
  • Needs – we say what needs of ours are being affected by their behaviour. For example, our need to be respected.
  • Requests – this is when we tell the other person what we want from them that will improve the situation.

An example: Sue is feeling more and more frustrated by how little emotional contact Michael is willing to offer. Many women would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so closed off? It drives me up the wall!’ While understandable, this kind of response is likely to make Michael even more closed off.

Shifting the energy

But when the complainant can be specific about exactly what behaviour she is unhappy with and what her feelings and needs are it can shift the energy away from blame.

So Sue could say: ‘When I get home and you don’t ask me about how my day was I feel lonely inside and distanced from you.’

She may add that this means her need for emotional closeness with her partner is not being met. She may then make a request. This could be that they agree to spend some time, perhaps over a glass of wine or while cooking the meal, re-connecting with each other by talking.

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg says that when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.

He says:  ‘Through its emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as to others – nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.’

 

 

What’s your attachment style and how does it affect your relationships?

2165411154_7058f0ae06It may seem strange to believe, but the way we grow up relating to our parents – our ‘attachment style’ – has a big impact on how we get on with romantic partners as adults.

When we realise our particular attachment style, and that of our partner, we can more easily understand the cause of arguments and disharmony

British psychologist John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, arguing that the bonds formed between infant and mother/caregiver had a lasting impact on a person’s life and relationships.

There are three main attachment styles:

  • Secure – these children develop trust in their caregivers and know that their needs will be met. As adults they are able to form trusting relationships and value intimacy.
  • Anxious/ambivalent – these children get the message that they cannot always rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. As adults they are worried that they cannot trust their partner and they may appear ‘needy’ or obsessed.
  • Avoidant – these children also got the message they could not depend on their caregiver.  In response they become self-reliant and independent. As adults they may devalue the importance of intimate relationships and fear getting too close to their partner.

Often in romantic relationships one finds people with secure attachment styles end up together and are able to form generally harmonious and trusting relationships.

The people that come to couple therapy tend to be from the third of the population that have anxious or avoidant styles. Often someone with an anxious attachment style, frequently but not always female, will get together with an avoidantly attached partner, frequently but not always male.

This is a recipe for unhappiness. The anxiously attached partner will often be possessive or jealous, seeking reassurance and comfort. The avoidantly attached partner, who values their independence and devalues ‘emotionality’, will feel boxed in and under pressure and react by seeking even more emotional distance. This, in turn, leaves the anxiously attached person feeling abandoned.

It is this vicious circle that can be so damaging and the fact that each partner is not aware of their attachment style and how it is affecting the relationship. Part of couple therapy is to bring these unconscious ways of relating to the surface so that they can be acknowledged and worked on.

By talking about attachment styles the therapist can more easily help the individuals look at their behaviour in a non-defensive way and not to see it as necessarily ‘wrong’. The avoidantly attached partner can be encouraged to gradually open up and connect more, while the anxiously attached partner is encouraged to back off a little bit in their demands.

These small changes can free up some valuable space for the couple to look at how they relate to each other. Recognising each other’s attachment style can help them make these changes because they take the other’s behaviour less personally and are more willing to question their own habits of relating.

Photo from Moriza at Flickr creative commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/