Categories
Couples

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

Categories
Couples

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