Helping Couples Overcome Conflict
Rivkah Weiss, MSW, Family Therapist
Albert Einstein is often credited with saying that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” As couples, we often behave in ways that border on insanity.
When couples have a disagreement, it can often escalate and feelings can be hurt. Each partner may feel defensive and react by withdrawing or lashing out. In the end, some couples are able to bounce back to normal when the charged feelings are neutralized by time. Others fight it out until the stronger personality overshadows the other. And for others, there is a stalemate and negative feelings percolate under the surface. Life continues until the next eruption. What a pity if this interchange, which has so much potential as a learning experience, turns into just another act of insanity.
Interpersonal conflict, while sometimes frightening, can also provide the opportunity for couples to learn more about themselves and each other and to develop greater intimacy. It can motivate them to become more aware of their own feelings and how their behavior affects their partner. They might explore what triggers them to feel defensive and how to deal with that feeling. Do they withdraw, attack, or try to suppress their feelings?
With knowledge comes choice. What do we need to feel safe and how can we best communicate that need to our partner and be respectful of our partner’s sensitivities? We can choose to use the conflict as an opportunity to make a change that will foster a different future outcome. If both husband and wife can each agree to do one thing differently, that will help the other feel safer; an atmosphere of mutual sensitivity and acceptance will then be created. For example, one might agree not to interrupt their conversation by checking their phone while the other might agree to maintain a normal tone of voice. Small changes can go a long way in helping the other person feel cared about and less defensive. Dr. John M. Gottman, famous for his ability to accurately predict which couples would divorce, found that these attempts to repair a relationship after a fight are a significant indicator of marital satisfaction and longevity.
Couples who confront their conflicts and communicate about them, typically grow together as they build greater feelings of closeness. They solidify their relationship and effect the change that will lead to a more fulfilling marriage.