Conflict in a couple is both necessary and inevitable. If there is no conflict, one or both of you may not be voicing your feelings. Engaging in conflict can be a sign that there is still hope of finding a mutual understanding; that solutions can be found through talking and that the couple is worth fighting for.

Conflict, if filled with negativity, can become a nuisance that is best avoided. Discussions are left halfway. The resolution remains an unattainable horizon. One ends up worse off than before entering the conflict. Even if you don’t want to, both partners come out of it damaged and with diminished trust. Incomprehension prevails.

The reason for the conflict is either put aside or, conversely, it is systematically insisted on without reaching a different outcome. If there is no change in the communication strategy, this will lead to the erosion of the couple; it will increase defensive postures, criticism, disdain, and silent treatment (the so-called four horsemen of the apocalypse by Gottman; Lisitsa, 2013). 

If you have a conflict saturated with negativity, you may wonder how you can ever connect with your partner in such a moment. How can you even think of saying something positive to them or try to be emotionally available to your partner in a moment of a heated argument? Although it sounds impossible, there are strategies that can help you do just that.  Let’s look at some of them. Points 5 and 6 are taken from the Imago Dialogue (Hendrix, 2007). 

  1. Hit pause. Stop for a moment and analyze the situation: are you feeling defensive? do you feel very angry or irascible? are you available and willing to listen to your partner? are you calm or agitated? are you breathing quicker, do you feel your heart beating faster? are you available and willing to talk or do you feel a strong desire/impulse to withdraw from the situation? Depending on the intensity of the conflict and the particular coping strategy that is used, some people may enter into what is called a state of emotional flooding (being overwhelmed by emotions and physiological responses) which leads to becoming upset, while others respond to this flooding (or before reaching this point) with deactivation (Manes, 2013). Deactivation usually involves withdrawal (either physical, emotional, or a combination of both). The former would correspond to those who pursue (i.e. actively seek resolution), the latter to those who withdraw to protect themselves (Thurman, 2019). 
  2. What is your starting point? According to compassion-focused therapy (Gilbert, 2014) we have three motivational systems, each with its associated adaptive function, brain regions, and hormones. 
  1. The threat system is activated when something alerts us to possible danger (present or future/anticipated). This system seeks to protect us and to find safety; it involves different coping styles (fight, flight, freeze, among others). When this system is activated, we experience emotions such as anger, anxiety, disgust, or shame. It can lead to aggressive attitudes or behaviors (not necessarily physical, although they can be), avoidance (wanting to avoid the discomfort generated, an escape), or submission (giving in to pressure). Within a conflict, you can identify if you are upset, angry, attacked, or fearful. When this motivational system is activated, your ability to make thoughtful and reasoned decisions is reduced because the part of the brain in charge of these functions (the prefrontal cortex) is not as active. The part of the brain that is most active is the amygdala and the HPA axis. The hormones involved are those associated with the attack/defense response mechanism and which help to mobilize the organism: adrenaline (and in stress, cortisol). 
  2. The drive system. Its function is to propel us towards achievement, to motivate us to seek/find resources and gain rewards for doing so. It is behind the desire, the search, the aspiration, and the striving. This system makes you get up in the morning to achieve your short-, medium- and long-term goals. It is the one that makes you pursue what matters to you, the one that is behind your training and knowledge. Within a couple’s conflict, this system is the solution seeker and the strategy implementer. It often responds to the threatening system to reduce the discomfort it generates. It does not necessarily involve the prefrontal cortex. The reward circuitry (in which the Nucleus Accumbens is prominent) is dominant in this system. Dopamine – the neurotransmitter that transmits reward – is involved. If we switch from the threat system to the drive system it can lead to hasty, unpremeditated, and – above all – reactive responses. Quick-fix, default, familiar, and known solutions that do not always lead to the desired resolution. 
  3. The third system is the calming system. Its function is care and self-care. It promotes kindness to others and to oneself. This system can be activated when the organism has managed to lower excess activation – often as a result of the threat system – and makes it possible to listen to itself and to others. You will notice it being active when you see yourself giving – and being open to – receiving affection, when you bond with others and yourself, and caring nature (to others and to yourself) is evident. In this system, the prefrontal cortex is more involved. As the organism is calmer, the decisions made are more proactive than reactive. It leads to feelings such as tranquillity, contentment, and well-being. Oxytocin is involved, the so-called love hormone (Watson, 2021). This third system is not always the most developed, but it is just as necessary as the other systems. 

Now that you are familiar with the three motivational systems… which one do you find yourself in? what do you need to switch to the calming system? Maybe you need to ask your partner if you require a moment to cool down, maybe you need a display of affection, to know that your partner is there. Maybe you need some time to process what you are discussing. If you ask for time, make sure you set a time frame of no more than 24 hours to resume the conversation.

  • What kind of language are you using? Analyze whether your tone is accusatory or conciliatory, whether you start with «I» messages (talking about how the situation is affecting you) or »you» messages (talking about your partner’s actions or behaviors), and whether your language is based on generalizations (always, never) or on concrete examples, whether you are talking about current/recent moments or bringing up incidents that have supposedly already been addressed (even if they still hurt), whether you are putting words in your partner’s mouth or whether you are speaking from your own experience. 
  • Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes: what parts of what he/she is saying make sense? Even if you don’t agree, do you understand why your partner is acting the way he/she is? Do you understand why what you discuss is important to him/her? Being able to agree to disagree is a very healthy thing to do in a relationship. Showing your partner that you understand his/her point of view (by acknowledging that something makes sense in what he/she is saying) can help lower defenses. 
  • Try to see the underlying emotion – how do you think your partner is feeling, how is the issue you are discussing impacting him/her, and how do you think your attitude, words, and/or actions are affecting him/her? Again, even if it doesn’t involve a change of view on who is right or wrong, this allows you to connect with your partner. If your partner feels heard and understood, he/she may be more receptive. 
  • Make repair attempts (Brittle, 2014). These can be understood as micro-bridges that reduce the negativity experienced during a conflict. Although some of the repair attempts have been mentioned in the previous bullet-points, they include – additionally – apologizing (taking responsibility for a disproportionate reaction, for a misunderstanding), making positive comments about your partner (highlighting positive qualities, commenting on things you appreciate about your partner or for which you are grateful).

When you enter into conflict you may strike a chord – vulnerability – of your partner. A rigid position does not necessarily have to mean self-centeredness or stubbornness just for the sake of it. Sometimes it may have more to do with feeling exposed, ignorant, insufficient, incapable… It is therefore understandable that one might choose a defensive attitude.

One defends that which is painful to bring to the surface. The vulnerability may have negative connotations for you: you may see it as unnecessary, something that shows weakness, something uncontrollable because you can’t predict the emotional impact it will have on you, something that could backfire against you, something that will jeopardize how your partner sees you and their desire to remain together…

There are specific vulnerabilities in the couple’s environment that are not found in other types of relationships. These specific vulnerabilities sometimes fall under the umbrella of the need to be in tune with your partner and the need for autonomy. These needs are what are understood as attachment needs. Attachment needs are first oriented to our parents/caregivers and then extrapolated to our partner. Depending on how your attachment needs and requests (connection and autonomy) were met in your family of origin you will feel more or less comfortable expressing the need for connection and/or autonomy with your partner.

Therefore, the type of conflict you have might find a great reduction in negativity if your attachment needs are addressed in the process. Even if you do not agree, and there will be many things you will not agree on, if you agree not to sacrifice attachment needs you will be a closer and more resilient couple to changes, challenges, and even crises.

This article was written by Daniel Van de Poll, a psychologist at Sinews if you are seeking couples therapy. or online therapy you can make your appointment here.

References:

Brittle, Z. (2014). R is for repair. The Gottman Institute Blog. https://www.gottman.com/blog/r-is-for-repair/ 

Gilbert, P. (2014). Terapia centrada en la compasión: características distintivas. Editorial Desclée de Brouwer. 

Hendrix, H. (2007). Getting the love you want. Henry Holt & Co. 

Lisitsa, E. (2013). The four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. The Gottman Institute Blog. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/ 

Manes, S. (2013). Making sure emotional flooding does not capsize your relationship. The Gottman Institute Blog. https://www.gottman.com/blog/making-sure-emotional-flooding-doesnt-capsize-your-relationship/ 

Thurman, D. (2019). Breaking relational conflict. The EFT Clinic blog https://theeftclinic.com/eftblog/2019/3/6/breaking-relational-conflict 

Watson, S. (2021). Oxytocin: the love hormone. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/oxytocin-the-love-hormone