When Going Wrong Has Taken Root: Knowing When To Get Help
Conflict is normal. Two of nature’s entities are pushing against each other as each tries to follow its own trajectory. Defined in this way, it’s possible to see that conflict is everywhere in the natural world: wind against a tree, sprouting seed against soil, birds flying through rain, and so on.
Two people, who are trying to collaborate on making decisions that affect them both, will have conflict. There’s just no way around that fact. They are pushing up against each other as each puts forth their opinions and feelings.
If conflict is to be expected, how can you tell if your relationship has crossed a boundary and left the territory of what’s “normal” and entered into the “troubled” zone? What are the signs that your relationship needs help?
Healthy conflict stays respectful, and ends with both partners feeling that, fundamentally, they are still well connected to one another. Research shows that when people make efforts to “repair” their connection, even while saying potentially divisive words, feelings don’t get hurt. Couples often describe these sorts of interactions as “productive” or “effective.”
But the opposite can occur: a couple can get stuck in “non-productive” mode while trying to wrangle through something, and end up feeling profoundly hurt and disconnected from each other. Common to almost all the couples we see in our group practice is the dejected observation by one or both partners that “we seem to end up in the same fight over and over.” Some report that the argument has gotten so predictable, it even can feel scripted. Tom will approach Jamie for sex, for example, and because she’s still bothered by the way he seemed to ignore her during dinner, she rolls her eyes and criticizes him for being “thick” and “unaware.” Feeling rejected and attacked, Tom snaps back that she should have married someone besides him -- someone who can magically read minds. Jamie, feeling hurt and alone, swears at him and leaves the room. Tom, hopeless by now, turns on the TV, and anticipates he’ll be sleeping on the couch that night.
The more each tries to be heard, the more entrenched they seem to become, and the more their conversation escalates and becomes argumentative. Deeply embedded in each person’s words and behavior is a powerful wish to connect and be loved, but that message has gotten lost in all the arguing.
The couple is enacting an all-too-familiar, rigid cycle of interactions that has, by now, become automatic and feels unstoppable. In Jamie and Tom’s case, the argument is about sex, but they could just as easily be arguing about chores, childrearing, finances, or anything else. The content of the argument is not what's important when paying attention to recurring negative cycles. The way the couple argues is everything.
Certain phases and events in people’s lives create fertile ground for relationship stress to develop and for these negative interactional cycles to take root. Some of these are having a baby, a miscarriage, or fertility troubles; the onset of a physical or mental illness in the family; or a major life transition like kids leaving home, death of a parent, re-location, changing jobs, unemployment, or stepping up the care-taking of elderly relatives. Couples going through any of these experiences are vulnerable to potentially becoming disconnected from each other, and falling into negative patterns.
When a couple senses trouble has set in, it’s vital to seek help from a well-trained couple therapist. But many couples don’t. There seem to be a few common beliefs held by one or both partners that prevent them from getting help:
Things really are not that bad.
Taking the time and paying for help feels like an indulgence.
I don’t want anyone to know our personal business.
Therapy is for weaklings.
There’s no way an outsider could ever be helpful, so there’s no point in trying.
We need to learn to solve our problems on our own.
Our last experience in therapy was not at all helpful, and I’m not subjecting myself to that again.
I don’t want to break down and get emotional in front of a stranger.
All are understandable; and yet it’s essential to put these beliefs aside and seek help anyways. Negative, recurring patterns of interaction don’t tend to correct themselves; in fact, they usually get worse over time if left to continue spinning on their own.
By now, there is a large body of well-regarded research describing how to work effectively to break these negative cycles. With guidance, Jamie and Tom would be given the chance to explore the ways they each get emotionally triggered by the other during their recurring arguments. They would each get clearer on the reasons for their particular emotional sensitivities, and be guided to share all this information with their partner in such a way that their partner begins to truly understand, and starts to shift from anger to compassion.
That’s when entrenched cycles can transform from negative to positive. Couples can start gaining confidence that they know how to have productive conflict about any topic at all.