Many marriages and long-term relationships end or suffer in chronic dissatisfaction because one or both of the members of the couple never learn basic rules of conflict resolution and that’s what we’re going to focus on today.
But, before we get into any specific techniques, let’s talk a bit about intimacy. One of the biggest tools in our tool boxes is the capacity for self-reflection. I typically ask couples when they come in the following question: “If you were to take 100% of the responsibility for the conflicts in your marriage (or relationship), what would you say? If the person isn’t able to at least take a stab at that by taking some responsibility; e.g. “I’m too impatient, reactive, judgmental, passive- aggressive, etc.” then I know I have my work cut out for me.
Couples often want me to serve as judge and jury of who is right, and on occasion, that’s useful–but most of the time it isn’t. What’s useful is helping couples see that conflict typically is perpetuated by way of feedback loops. For example, one of the biggest predictors of divorce is what is called the Pursuer-Distance dynamic. In this dynamic, one person pursues the other for something that they’re not getting: conversation, intimacy, time while the other distances themselves. Over time, this dynamic escalates where both feel hurt, angry and misunderstood.
The pursuer has a right to want more time together and the distancer has a right to want more distance. Neither is right, however. The solution is for them to see how their reactions decrease the likelihood of their partner responding in a way that gets them what they want. Both feel misunderstood. The solution is to help them both be empathic toward the other.
Why is empathy important? Studies show that when we feel understood, we’re far more likely to want to give others what they want. That’s why right and wrong discussions are doomed to failure. However, many people have a hard time simply empathizing with their partner’s perspective because they feel like they’re rubber-stamping the other person’s behavior. I often have to work hard in my office to get people to simply reflect back what the other person said, without judgment or editing.