Care to Dance? I’ll take blame; you take attack. Conflict in Couples

All couples have arguments, and contrary to popular belief, arguments with your spouse or partner are healthy. They help decide the direction or course of the relationship, resolve important decisions regarding child rearing or domestic issues, and move the relationship forward.

But what frustrates most couples is...

...when they tend to have the same argument over and over and over. More to the point, what keep couples stuck is when they fall into the same dynamic when they argue.

Dynamics, or as Lerner (1989) calls them, “dances,” are the repetitive interpersonal movements and interactions between the couple. More often than not, these movements tend to be rather automatic and outside the awareness of the partner or themselves.

When tension is created between the couple, the dance is what occurs when neither partner feels heard, understood, or validated.

Emotion has a great deal to do with the type of dance, as does defenses, because most dances occur to protect vulnerable feelings that are too sensitive to acknowledge. Dances can be about attachment, self-esteem, identity, or past traumas and hurt.

This blog post attempts to articulate one type of dance or dynamic in couples relationships and marriage called “conflict.” The conflict dance or dynamic is created when both partners try to regulate their emotions based on the amount of distance or closeness they can tolerate from the other.

Oftentimes, both partners feel hurt and shamed by the others attack and in an effort to defend themselves they put up walls and “blame” the other. This creates a vicious cycles where the couple continually attacks and blames the other for being the problem.

More often than not, the hurt doesn’t show as much as the anger, in part because we use defensive emotions to protect our more vulnerable emotions that would expose our sensitivity to our partners angry attacks.

This dynamic usually continues until a truce is called, both partners go to their separate corners to “cool off,” or one or both of the partners drop their defenses and try to understand the other.

How do you know if you are a “conflict” couple? These signs or symptoms might give you a clue:

• You find you and your partner can have an argument over a seemingly small, insignificant thing.

• You find you and your partner tend to argue more than get along.

• It’s not uncommon for things to be broken after an argument (i.e., holes in walls, broken lamps, etc).

• Your neighbors have complained about the yelling and noise coming from your home.

• You describe your partner as stubborn and think headed, and they describe you that way as well.

• You feel angry or “on-guard” when with your partner and you are reluctant to discuss even small things for fear that it will start an argument.

So what can be done about the vicious cycle of conflict?

First, it is important to understand the vulnerable feelings that are being protected against. More often than not, the anger serves to mask the shame, guilt, or hurt being felt at the initial point of blame or attack.

Covering over these feelings with anger only makes things worse and escalates the argument even more. Try to say focused on the more vulnerable hurt feelings and speak from a place of those core emotions, rather than the defensive emotions.

Saying things like, “It hurts when you blame me for all that has gone wrong.” Or, “I feel like you think everything is my fault and that you had no role is what happened.” Or, “I’m feeling really attacked right now and find it hard to think because of the hurt I’m feeling.”

Second, try to validate your spouse’s point of view. Getting defensive, which is only natural when one feels attacked, it not the answer. Your spouse more than likely wants to you understand his or her point of view, and is probably only escalating the anxiety because he/she feels misunderstood.

Suspend your point of view for a moment and try to reflect back what you’ve heard. For example, “What I hear you saying is that you feel disrespected when I point out a problem in our relationship.”

Or, “What I heard you saying is that you feel like I’m completely blaming you for everything that has happened.” Or, “I feel like you don’t value me when you speak to me that way.”

Breaking the cycle of conflict has as much to do with self and other soothing as it does letting go of defensive feelings like anger. Trying to get to a place where you can validate your partner’s point of view, even if you don’t agree with it, can help soothe some of the hurt feelings in your partner and deescalate the dance of conflict.

If you find yourself and your relationship centers around a repetitive conflict patter of interactions you may need to call a Tulsa licensed professional counselor to help them learn. To take the first step toward a healthier relationship call us at 918-398-7678 or request a counseling appointment online by clicking here.

- Tom Philp, LPC, NCC

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