Learning How to Move Past Conflict in a Relationship

With Valentines Day in the rearview mirror, romantic relationships are on many people’s minds. Many times we like to imagine the perfect romantic relationship as one in which we never fight or disagree. However, this does not exist. Every relationship contains conflict because relationships involve two people who necessarily are different. Conflict is inevitable. Rather, the way that a couple deals with conflict defines how successful the relationship is. Here are two approaches, one by marriage therapist, John Gottman, of the Gottman Institute and one from the father of internal family systems therapy, Richard Schwartz.

Gottman emphasizes openness and communication in a relationship. In the book, Eight Dates:Essential Conversations for a Lifetime a Love, Gottman and his wife, Julia Schwartz Gottman suggest the following steps: 1) Each person should take turns talking about what they felt during the fight, 2) Each person should talk about their perception of what happened in the fight without blaming or judgment, making clear that it is their perception rather than objective truth, 3) when you are “triggered” as a result of an old vulnerability (this is the source of most triggers), tell your partner the story of the trigger, 4) Accept responsibility for your part in the fight (without pointing out your opinion of your partner’s fault), and 5) discuss how you can do things differently next time.

Richard Schwartz developed a type of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy. In Internal Family Systems Therapy, Schwartz posits the existence of repressed parts of our psyches that he calls exiles. These exiles are traits that we have repressed in an effort to protect ourselves. Schwartz also describes aspects of our psyche that he calls protectors which are compensating personality traits designed to “protect” or overcompensate for the exiles. Traumas often generated exiles and protectors. Schwartz believes that when we get in disagreements in which we are “triggered” we do so because our protectors become aroused at the reminder of an old trauma. Thus,in You Are the One You Have Been Waiting For, Schwartz recommends the following steps for dealing with disagreements with your partner 1) Try not to overreact internally; 2) try to remain centered and internally calm during conflict, but if you do feel yourself getting “hijacked” by your “protectors,” try to realize that they are not you and create some distance; they do not represent your true feelings about your partner but are a response to something bad that happened to you before; 3) Later, analyze what caused your protectors to come out, especially the exile or painful experience that triggered them; 4) disclose this information to your partner; and 5) apologize for your extreme behavior and commit to working with the exiles and protectors that came out during the fight.

Both of these frameworks can be useful and each speaks a slightly different language. Choose what works for you. I have found the following guidelines useful: 1) learn to feel your feelings and emotions, especially when you are triggered. Where do they originate and sit in your body and what sensations do they generate? 2) Uncover the past experiences that cause your triggers. You can do this after a fight, in counseling, in mediation, through vision quests or retreats, through journaling or any time that you can find to be objective and reflective. 3) Notice your emotions when they begin to rise within you and say to yourself that “This is not the true me. This is not even the person I am interacting with. This is one of my triggers.” 4) Adopt an attitude of curiosity and compassion about what your partner is saying; 5) Realize that what they are saying is driven by their own feelings, experiences, and perceptions and 6) acknowledge what they have said; 7) don’t offer advice in a fight; 8) there is no right or wrong- you will not prove any points and it is totally beside The Point. 9) Accept responsibility for yourself and managing your emotions, and 10) apologize for your role in the conflict.

3 responses to “Learning How to Move Past Conflict in a Relationship”

  1. I am great admirer of Dr. Gottman’s work. I wrote a post on most beneficial role of one of his books in my own marriage. After we had a child, a peaceful and romantic relationship became a storm. Reading And baby makes three made me understand that the frustration is not with my partner, but with the new, almost overwhelming responsibility, and that he really did weigh in all the additional housework. What really made a difference for us was paying attention, prioritizing the relationship over chores, remembering why you chose that person in the first place and giving and accepting peace offerings.


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