Relationship conflict: It doesn’t have to end in tears

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Tree Swallows on Fence Pole, Love Birds by Victor Benard.

Graeme James

Is your relationship one of trust, mutual respect and a source of deep satisfaction? Do you share goals and hopes for your future together? Do you allow yourself to be influenced by your partner? Or instead is your relationship one of conflict, perhaps characterised by bitterness, or physical and emotional distance? How can it be that something that once seemed so right could some how end up feeling so wrong? Does it have to end in tears?

Are problems ‘all your fault’ or does it take ‘two to tango’?

Ever noticed how in relationships, each person always seems to think the other person has caused the problem? When things heat up it is easy to think that the other person is the source of our woes. If only they would stop being selfish, be kinder, more involved, take some responsibility, stop this or do that! Yet in relationships, conflict can often be more like a bad dance routine. The first step is criticism, the other pushes back defensively with a judgement, only to encounter contempt. Finally, as it gets too much, one or the other withdraws in silence, things can fester, maybe ease up for a while, before it all starts again. Sometimes it does not matter what the conflict is about, it is characterised by the same steps and moves. The reality of this dance for many couples is that they each react to the others reactions. This can lead to a cycle of escalation and deep dissatisfaction. Therapist and author Susan Johnson refers to this as the Negative Interaction Cycle. It is sometimes called the infinity loop because it can go around and around and around. Over time this can lead to deep wounds in the relationship, and when it gets too much, this can spell relationship disaster.

Learning from good relationships

When conflict occurs in relationships, it can either drive couples apart, or bring people closer together if it is acknowledged and worked with for the benefit of the relationship. According to US relationship therapists and researchers, John and Julia Gottman, relationships that are characterised by criticism, judgement, contempt, and or stonewalling (when one partner closes down and goes silent or withdraws) can be much more problematic than those where partners share hopes and dreams, have similar values, and can manage conflicts. The Gottmans’ research shows that couples who can handle conflicts tend to know what differences can be lived with because they are not deal breakers, versus those that have to be addressed for the good of the relationship. These couples seem to know how to address conflict in more constructive ways, they turn towards rather than away from their partners, allow themselves to understand their partners perspective, and be influenced by their partner. When they do make their point, they start slowly and stick to the point and the facts, speaking without criticising or judging their partner. So even difficult relationships can end up with more hopeful outcomes, though it takes work on the part of both people.

Understanding the dance of Negative Interaction Cycles

There is generally a key premise used by counsellors and psychotherapists who are trained in couple and family therapy, no matter what modality they work from. Instead of viewing problems being inside a person (the relationship has problems because of your anxiety, your depression, your bad behaviour etc) therapists help couples to notice how problems tend be generated by something from each partner. For example, one partner might initiate something or pursue the other during conflict, while the other withdraws and holds back. It is a bit like the chicken and the egg. Does the pursuing come first, then the distancing, or does the distancing happen because of the pursuing? In a sense the behaviour of each partner creates the reaction in the other person.

A therapist can help couples to identify this pattern and learn its dance moves, including the use of criticism, judgment and withdrawal, so that couples don’t automatically get caught up in the same old routines, time and time again. It can be useful to identify the Negative Interactive Cycle. Underneath each of the steps in the conflict can lay emotions that often go unnoticed or remain unexpressed. These can point to deeper attachment needs. Learning to experience these emotions in the safety of couple therapy can help couples to explore and express their emotions in ways that don’t recreate the pattern. This can lead to breakthroughs where couples may learn to be tender and supportive of each other’s vulnerabilities rather than critical and argumentative. The relationship can then get back on track, or if there is a separation, it is done from a place of understanding so that the problems don’t unconsciously get carried through into the next relationship. Sometimes though the personal vulnerabilities of one partner may become particularly triggered. At these times it can be useful to see a therapist as an individual and gain personal understanding and support.

Couple therapy and your relationship

Relationship and couple therapy differs from individual therapy. The focus is on patterns of interaction between partners. This can point to emotional needs, help understand difficult behaviour, and unpack the stories couples tell themselves about their relationships. A good couple therapist will help each partner to see the pattern without taking sides. Seeing a couple therapist can help couples to become aware of their relationship patterns, track their behaviour, express their emotions without repeating the difficulties they normally encounter. Many couples tell me they find couple therapy allows them to work with their differences safely and more productively. They actually get to explore and express what is important and ultimately, show their partner that they matter.

Author Bio

Graeme James uses an integrative approach to counselling and therapy, drawing from significant experience and research to tailor the therapeutic relationship. Graeme James has taught counselling through university, managed Lifeline Sydney and worked with Medibank Health for Beyondblue. He supervises a range of health professionals including counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists, nurses, educators and students. His research investigated therapists’ sense and use of self during life-threatening illness.

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