relationships, conflict resolution

Dear Readers,

This is our last post on the series of relationship saboteurs. In this post, we look at another common cycle of conflict that gets established in relationships: I’m right, you’re wrong, and it’s not my fault.

Here is the deal: when conflict arrives, you and your partner use every resource you have to solve it; sometimes you use your resources effectively and learn together from the conflict, but sometimes you wind up hurting the relationship. The more you use ineffective conflict resolution strategies, the more distance you create between the two of you. This distance gets stretched to the point where it can quickly destroy your relationship. A relationship that started out as special, fun, and exciting when you met, can turn quickly into your questioning “Why do I have to see her again?” “What’s wrong with me for staying with this person?” and “Why in the world did I commit to this suffering?”

Relationships are organic entities and require “tune ups” from the very beginning; any organic being requires care. Even cars require tune ups throughout their existence, and relationships require them too, period. No relationship will survive without both parties learning from those troublesome and rocky moments that arrive and from making continual adjustments, accommodations, and negotiation. No learning happens if you or your partner “do not look at the mirror,” but continue to look out the window. Here is your task for this post: to look one more time at how you handle conflict; this is not about what your partner says or does or how angry the relationship makes you feel. This is all about your response.

To learn more about how you handle conflict go back to a recent argument you had with your romantic partner and see if you can bring that memory into your mind as vividly as possible. The more details you recall, the better for this exercise. Pay special attention to the moment in which you started getting upset and see if you can recall the specifics of your response. What did you say? What did you do? How did you feel at that time? Did you prioritize the relationship or did you rapidly start to blame your partner or blame yourself?

For example, Mark holds onto the story, “I’m right” every time he and Mary have problems about finances. According to him, given that he’s an accountant, he has been trained to pay attention to details, and therefore he believes he’s more accurate than she is in his recollection of facts. Mary, on the other hand, grew up as a single child and was constantly praised by her parents, so she didn’t learn to receive feedback or criticism from others and developed the belief that whatever happens to others, it’s their fault and she has nothing to do with it. When there is a conflict in Mark and Mary’s relationship, Mark gets very busy defending his argument, as a lawyer would, and Mary tries to put all the responsibility on Mark. She takes this to an extreme, as she feels she has nothing to do with the challenging situation they’re facing.

The story of “I’m right, you’re wrong” is characterized by thoughts along the lines of, “I said it correctly, I know exactly what happened; he’s not telling the truth, he gets everything wrong; I have the facts, it’s pretty obvious to me.” On the other side, the “it’s not my fault” response comes as a natural reaction when anyone feels criticized, accused, or blamed. What’s challenging about these type of reactions? Holding on with white knuckles to either story of “I’m right, you’re wrong” or “It’s not my fault” does not give priority to the relationship. It’s putting yourself ahead at the cost of the relationship. It’s like you have a score of: relationship = 0 and you = 1.

I’m not saying that any of these stories are wrong in and of themselves or that something is wrong with you for having them; they’re just learned and reinforced responses. However, in the context of a relationship, when you get “rigidly” attached to them, to the extent to which they are your only way of handling conflict, they are certainly not helpful. Would you rather have all the facts and grow apart in your relationship? Would you rather deny how your behaviors influence the conflict with your partner and create distance in your relationship? Choosing to look at how your behaviors affect your relationship is a personal decision, and when faced with conflict you have a chance to pause, breathe, notice your go-to response as an emotional detective, and then choose your behavior.

Here is what you could do to make a change:

  • Identify your “go to” response.
  • Go back in time, and like a detective, see if you can find out who you learned this response from.
    Your “go to” responses are learned behaviors.
  • Identify your triggers for your go to strategies.
    See if you can recognize specific things your partner says or does that sets you off.
  • During a time when you are not in conflict, ask your partner about his or her observations of your behavior when you are in the midst of an argument.
    Receiving feedback in a relationship is crucial, and without realizing it, we all do things that we’re not aware of. So what about asking your partner for feedback in a moment of non-conflict? This may be scary, but you’ll see that it’s a helpful way to hear something about yourself that would be helpful. You’re not asking to be punished or criticized but to hear that other person’s perspective on your behavior.
  • Check with yourself if you’re holding on to stories of “I’m right, you’re wrong or it’s not my fault” and if you quickly behave based on them.
  • Check with yourself if you want to keep doing so.
  • If not, then before making any statement based on the story, see if you can practice “stillness” and, from a place of curiosity, ask your partner questions about his or her opinion. Asking these questions from a place of curiosity may give you a chance to learn instead of automatically reacting.
  • Do your best to distinguish the story from the direct experience in front of you.

Now let’s have a new score for you: relationship=1 and mind-stories = 0.