Couples in Conflict

So everybody in relationship with another person – could be child, sister, brother, colleague, neighbour, father, mother, partner – doesn’t matter what kind of relationship it is – will eventually experience the erruption of conflict.

Conflict is an inevitable consequence of being human, of being individual and seeing things from a unique perspective. None of us, not even if we are an identical twin, will see things from exactly the same perspective as another person – therefore, sometimes we will be in conflict with each other.

Sounds very reasonable, very logical – however most of us are shocked even angry when conflict emerges in relationship. Most of us are affronted by this departure from the beautiful euphoric experience of being ‘in love’ and that delightful cascade of hormones that is released at the beginning of a relationship.

Do you remember when you felt that blissful feeling of absolute acceptance and approval? It is a shock when that chemical veil lifts. For some of us – it is a big shock and the conflict we are experiencing with our partner is so intense it has become destructive.

Conflict with a partner is unavoidable but oddly this is not explained to most of us before we pass through ‘the ceremony’ or the ‘moving in’ day. Most of us are ‘not happy’ the first time our partner fails to be what they ‘were’ in the beginning. Or ‘fails’ to ‘make us’ feel that initial rush of ‘feel good’.

This is the beginning of ‘relationship’ – what is left after that magic carpet tide of biochemistry goes out. There is good news – you get an opportunity to create – the real thing.

I don’t like conflict. Yes but why?

This question can be as complex as it is existential. Most of us have not been taught how to deal with conflict safely or successfully by parents, teachers or figures of authority in the culture where we grew up. We have some ideas about conflict and mostly, these ideas don’t work. Sometimes we are even flat out afraid of conflict – because, let’s face it – it gets very hot! People get angry!

We look around in society at what others are doing and we don’t see others handling conflict much better. We see people for the most part adopt one of the two main instinctive responses indigenous to human beings. People either run away and avoid, OR they resort to use some form of coercion or intimidation. They confront and fight.

Dealing with conflict in a way that does not work, that does not fundamentally address the source of the problem just leads to more conflict. Over time this pattern of behaviour can become a habitual way of feeling, thinking and acting – which is deeply unsatisfying and chronically disempowering, disabling and brings on feelings of despair. These conditions are fertile ground for psychological maladies like depression and anxiety to establish themselves in our lives. Not good.

If we were to cut this question of “Why we don’t we like conflict?” down to its quick, boil it right down to its essential elements – the following answer emerges;

“We don’t like conflict because we don’t get our way”

We might say “conflict occurs when the expectations one person has of the other, are not being met”. This in turn causes frustration, anger, hurt or resentment, sadness or some other experience of negative emotion to happen.

The Finger of Blame

Most of us are partly aware of some of the expectations we hold and largely or completely unaware of others. We might believe strongly something like, “My partner should KNOW what I am feeling!”

There is also an exquisite feeling of power and control that happens when we point ‘the finger’ at that partner we love – sometimes. Saying “It is YOUR fault!” may feel righteous and justified for seconds but it will not deal with the deeper ‘problem’ or the real reason you are fighting and cannot stop.

Expectations come from our past, our personal histories, our culture, what we see other people do and what has worked for us in the previously to restore a sense of control and inner peace.

Identifying ‘What these expectations are?”, “Why we hold them?” and examining whether or not continuing to hold them is a good idea – is referred to in the counselling trade as ‘inner work’. And it is a bit like cleaning the gutters – it will be needed if peace, connection and love is to be restored and maintained. Everything needs maintenance, especially connections and relationships between people.

“No?” I hear you respond, “That is not the case? In my situation …”

OK, well let’s see?

Why do we fall in love with the one we do?

It is taken me a couple of degrees and a trip back in time with Freud to arrive at a complete understanding of this question – got there in the end but it took a while.

I can share a brief history of love here, now, but I do so cautiously because I know that everybody is an Arm Chair Psychologist. Everybody to some extent is interested in the social doings and beings of people. For this reason you will have an opinion, probably a strong opinion on why people fall in love. And your opinion will inform, guide and direct to some extent what you do.

I am just offering you an opinion for consideration – perhaps my opinion is informed by research, training and experience but it is, nonetheless, an opinion. I offer it as a place to start rather than attempting to completely tie up all the loose ends.

So to distill this question to its essence …

The one we love, the one we want to ‘be’ with reminds us both consciously and also unconsciously of the best and the worst parts of both our parents.

This means – that in our relationship with this person – yes that one we struggle with so intensely – in this relationship we are being given a priceless opportunity to transform our past, to stop living from a habitual false restricted self. Being in relationship gives us a daily and sometimes moment by moment opportunity to be present, to grow towards and in to the authentic self that is liberated from the limitations of past traumas, habits, patterns and histories.

There is nothing like a partner to give you a reflection of exactly who you are at any given moment. Partners are adept at revealing to what extent you have mastered yourself, your present, your past and your future – the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes it can be ugly, but there is beauty to find also.

So how do we do this?

Good question – we begin and seek out a guide.

There are three things I tell every couple who comes to see me for help when everything is hot and everyone feels the future is hopeless. I would like to share this with you now because it is a place to begin trying to find a way through this crazy maze of false selves in conflict with authentic selves crashing in to the razor wire of past histories, learnings and things generally going – wrong.

1. Baggage

We all have baggage from our past, whether we can see it or not – each of us has learned how to do close relationships, how to do conflict or not do conflict and how to communicate from our childhood and our experiences with our parents. The things we learned, our histories – are playing out here in this relationship. Some of it will be working, some of it is not.

All of us in relationship – when we fall in love – unconsciously swaps baggage from the past with our partner. We unconsciously but stubbornly expect our partner to sort through our dirty laundry, wash, fold, make sense of and hand back our laundry to us tidy and well understood. This is impossible because we are not our partner. Our partner cannot reach inside our mind and change things around the ‘right’ way. We can only claim our own baggage. We cannot claim our partner’s baggage.

“Are you willing to take back your baggage and work to understand your story and yourself separately from your partner?”

2. Playing Tennis

Being in relationship with a partner is like playing tennis. Each player needs to stay on one side of the court and wait for their opponent to hit the ball over the net. Successful and effective communication in a close relationship is like playing tennis. You can only hit the ball over the net, that is speak as authentically as is possible, and wait to see how your partner will respond. You cannot run around the other side of the court and hit your own ball back to yourself. In the same way you cannot respond for your partner.

The challenge is to play the best most authentic shot you can and then allow your partner to return your shot with their best response. If we can do this we will move away from the past and begin to deal with conflict more effectively.

3. Hope

One of you has decided already that this is not going to work. One of you has given up. I know this because fighting with a partner is painful.

I am suggesting to you that the source the pain you are feeling is coming from the past. However the past becomes the present when you and your partner get in to conflict because you are both repeating behaviours and re-experiencing stories from the past that were never successfully resolved.

I am suggesting to you that you have chosen your partner for a very specific and unique reason. The reason you have such intense and difficult feelings for your partner is that they remind you of the best and the worst of both your parents therefore this relationship is potentially transformative for you both.

This relationship offers you both a way to resolve the past and live with each other from a place of authenticity rather than a place of restriction, frustration and hurt if you can bring awareness to what is happening between you both and be open to approaching conflict differently.

A Worthy Opponent

A partner as a worthy opponent can bring the authentic life closer. The path to authenticity for all of us is not straight forward. The world we live in, the community that nurtured and taught us when we were children, regardless of our cultural background, is full of woundedness and broken-ness.

If this were not the case we would have finally defeated the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse but we as a global community – have not. Our identities and nature as individuals is to some extent the legacy of our ancestors and all of the decisions they made as they faced struggle, immigration, war, fragile governments and many other cataclysmic forces. Many of us are living with ancestral legacies of surviving and coping with these adversaries.

All of us are both limited and defined by our personal histories until we become aware of what is driving us. We cannot act upon knowledge and skills we do not have, when we know better we can do better. The broken-ness that exists in our histories and in the histories of our communities means there are not many we are likely to meet with an intact authentic self. This makes it hard for us to come to know ourselves authentically through another.

Enter – the Worthy Opponent.

Living authentically is all at once a philosophy, an approach to living and a daily discipline. It requires courage and commitment to get to know yourself, inside and out. It is all about being honest with yourself and from this foundation relating to others and the world around you. Being in relationship with another seeking to live authentically is challenging but without this inspiration to guide and motivate, there would be no authentic self on the other side to meet you.

If you can begin to do ‘it’, they can begin to become ‘it’. Committing to living authentically yourself gives your partner’s authentic self permission, motivation and inspiration to step forward, begin growing and eventually to ‘meet’ you.

Living authentically is a small yet powerful contribution to the creation of world peace. Couples are the foundations of families, the family is the corner stone of community, community is the vehicle for culture and evolution of humanity. Healthy families raise healthy children and healthy children become responsible adult custodians. It is a worthy pursuit to be a worthwhile opponent.

It is also – Fun!

Go the Authentic Life.

Peace out!

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