Quarreling during Quarantine: Tips for Couples to Manage Conflict
All relationships have conflict. It happens when you put two uniquely different people together. The differences between the two of you are what holds you together. It would be quite boring if you were too similar. But quarreling can deplete the relationship if you do not know how to resolve issues. Unresolved issues continue to surface, no matter how often you try to skate around or over. I am referring to the conflict in a relationship and not abuse. If you are unsure of the difference in your relationship, reach out to a mental health professional or your physician. As a relationship therapist and coach, I see couples all the time in conflict, and often they are tired of not being able to resolve their issues. They are surprised when I show them why they are at this impasse and how to to get out of it. My first lesson...
Focusing on the other person changing or being the problem is sure to keep you both stuck. When change rests on someone else changing, you will feel powerless. Not a good position to be in! A mindset shift is necessary, but also taking responsibility for your part in the relating pattern. It Takes Two to Tango You both play a part in maintaining the conflict, whether you want to see your part or not. We begin our work together focused on each taking responsibility for their role in the relationship interaction, or what we refer to as "the couple dance." The two of you are entangled in a dance vying for power or influence. A power struggle around issues. It is time to put down your sword! #COVID-19 has brought on a threat to every person worldwide. The fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered in each of us. Everyone will respond differently to a threat depending on how deep our wounds are and how much work we have put into healing our past hurts. The hurts I am referring to are both the big and small traumas that have happened to us, and as far back as we can remember. So, even though the present threat is different, your reptilian brain does not recognize the difference. The message is still the same--"threat." An alarm goes off and we react--fight, flight or freeze. Your defense mechanisms will be triggered during this heightened time of uncertainty, abiding by the #stayhome measures, and you may find yourself reactive to your partner, or vice versa. Maybe you are the one on the receiving end. Perhaps you freeze in hopes that this will pass. Or do you run and hide and spend your free time on the media or avoiding any real conversation?
Your differences are highlighted and the two you can slip into a defend-attack dance with each other.
When you are triggered, and you perceive a threat (big or small), you naturally protect yourself with invisible armor. You gear up, as I tell my clients, sword and all. The goal is to create a safe space for connection and healing because if you try to do anything but heal that trigger, it will continue to come up. That is why couples find themselves in conflict over the same issue(s) over and over again. They don't create a space for healing to occur, and they continue to hurt each other, even unconsciously. Your relationship can be a source of deep healing. You want to create a space where you and your partner can undress from that protective armor, soften and open. You want to get "buck naked," or, in other words, vulnerable. It needs to feel safe for this to happen. But how do you do that when you are feeling so guarded? Creating Safety A safe environment allows for vulnerability, and we need to create this safety. You can do your part, remember you are in control of you, and doing things that build security. Here are suggestions for creating space for vulnerability. Be brave, and put down your sword. The emotional environment between you and your partner might not feel safe, and it takes only one motivated partner to create a shift. Be brave and take the first step to help you both soften. Start by putting down your sword. An invitation to surrender can look like you walking towards your partner unarmed and inviting a conversation. Putting down your sword also requires you to be mindful of times when you jab your partner with it. Do you say things that just hit your partner in a provoking manner? If you open yourself up to seeing your part, you will know what you do. If you don't, pay more attention. It sounds like a dig at your partner, and it is hurtful and non-productive. What would it take for you to lay down your weapons? Set clear Boundaries Think of boundaries as the rules for how to build a safe container to discuss the hard stuff—set standards for how the two of you might talk, or at a minimum for yourself. If your partner is talking, that means you listen. Listen as a curious partner. You can simply reflect or mirror what your partner says so that you are 1) present to your partner, and 2) you are not jumping in and responding too quickly. You want to discern between what is your partner's issue vs. what is your problem. That way, you can address the issue presented. As soon as you respond without fully listening to the other, you are likely to entangle yourself in their problem, making it a more significant challenge to tackle, hence why couples find themselves frustrated that they can not resolve their issues. Get Perspective Ever climb a mountain or get to a high point? When you look down, everything seems peaceful. You gain a new perspective. You want to expand your view of the conflict and see it from a broader lense. If you are listening to your partner, I mean really listening, you can hear what is said and their experience of the issue. Stretch yourself to see it from their perspective. You don't have to agree, but you are more likely to respond with empathy if you pull back. If you find that the two of you are so entrenched in your dance and need support to get out of it, a new perspective, then seek out a relationship coach or therapist to help the two of you. Getting support is an act of bravery and can be a game-changer with the right kind of support. Even during this uncertain time, you can find virtual guidance to help you to go from quarreling to connection with greater ease.