Anyone who has ever loved someone and disagreed with them knows how painful that disconnection can be. However, there are five key concepts to understand about conflict that once understood and applied will make the biggest impact in your relationship with the one you love when you disagree.
One: Disagreements are Normal
First off, it is important to note that disagreements are normal. According to renowned researcher, therapist and author, John Gottman, PhD, nearly 2/3 of relationship problems are unsolvable. All relationships are going to experience disagreements as we all come from different backgrounds, have had different experiences and belief systems. In fact, a majority of the disagreements (69%) are not solved. What the research has found is that it is not the presence of the conflict itself but the manner in which the couple responds to that conflict that makes the biggest difference. Your job is not to solve the conflict but to understand where your spouse is coming from. How you respond matters more than solving the conflict.
Two: There is a Science Behind how our Bodies and Minds Respond to Conflict
While disagreements are normal and not always solvable, it is important to understand what goes on for us when we are experiencing conflict and why it is so painful so that we can do a better job at responding and repairing the rifts between us. Science and research on relationships tells us a lot about how our bodies and minds respond to conflict and how we can navigate reconnecting with those that we love.
So, what do we know?
Our brains are actually wired to see emotional isolation as dangerous. Our brains will send a panic signal when we cannot get a loved one to respond. If we can’t reconnect, we do one of two responses. We either fight or flight–we get demanding or we shut down. We get mad and move in fast to break down the other’s walls or we try not to care so much and build a wall to protect ourselves. How we respond is something that we learned when we were really young. And though we will have a tendency to respond by getting louder or shutting down, there is another way that we can learn to respond that can help us to achieve the reconnection to our partner we are seeking.
Three: The Best of Everyone Comes When They Feel and Know That They are Loved
I never thought that I would be a referencing a song sung by a troll in a Disney movie as an example of this, but these lyrics actually have a lot of truth in them:
“We’re not sayin’ you can change him, ‘Cause people don’t really change. We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange. People made bad choices If they’re mad, or scared or stressed. Throw a little love their way. And you’ll bring our their best. True love brings out their best! (From “Fixer Upper in Disney’s Frozen)
It is imperative to find simple ways to show them that they are loved. It can be a gesture of holding their hand or telling them something specific that you appreciate about them. Although it can be difficult to be vulnerable at times, be intentional and reach out and show them that they matter to you. What makes your partner feel loved? Do you know how your partner can show you that you matter to them? The truth is, we are more willing to compromise when we feel heard, loved and validated.
Four: “Try and Be A Fly”
When our emotions run high, our cognition or our ability to think straight doesn’t. It is important to note that when we are flooded with emotions, we really can’t process or even hear what another person is saying. There is a strategy developed by Dr. Susan M. Johnson, PhD, that at these moments is a lifesaver in helping understand what is going on. She suggests that the next time your partner gets upset with you, shuts down, or pulls away emotionally, to try and be a fly– to try and see the conflict as if you were a fly on the ceiling. Often underneath the discussion of problem issues someone is asking for more emotional connection. In fact, most conflicts are not actually about the issue itself but about what is underneath. Most often it has to do with connection. “Do I matter to you? Are you there for me? Can I count on you first to respond to me- to put me first? It is important to see the conflict from a distance and stay curious about what your partner is trying to convey. See if you can get curious and pinpoint distance or a typical pattern. Maybe its the dance where one pushes for contact, but the other hears criticism and steps back. Ask yourself questions such as: What is this argument really about? What is the message that my partner is trying to send? How can I show them that they matter to me?
Five: The Key to Reconnection is Having a Compassionate Perspective
Arguments and disagreements bring out the worst in ourselves and in our partners. However, if you can consider that their unexplained outbursts or poor reactions from a compassionate perspective, it allows us to view our partner in a light that can lead to reconnection rather than disengagement. So rather than do the typical dance patterns and react with fight or flight mode, there is a third option that you can choose which can help you to reconnect with your loved one–to stay and reach out.
When our partner is lashing out or creating distance between us, it is extremely hard to remain compassionate and loving. However, Dr. Jeremy Boden, PhD, LMFT, CFLE, suggests that when your partner reacts poorly during a disagreement that you consider that these reactions are your partner’s “best adaptive strategy that they’ve learned to manage the difficult emotions that have come up for them because they perceive a disconnection between us. It’s not the most effective strategy, but it’s their best attempt to regain connection.” By viewing their behavior as your partner’s best attempt (although failed) at managing emotions they are feeling from being disconnected with you, it allows you to stay compassionately curious and explore what is really going on for them and gives you a way to reconnect and repair the rift in the relationship. It allows you to stay and reach out for your partner and demonstrate the love that they perhaps are not seeing or feeling.
Research is clear that relationships can thrive even with major differences, backgrounds and conflict. The one thing that love can’t survive is constant emotional disconnection. So, look for ways to validate your partner and show them that they matter to you. Remember that in conflict, your job is not to solve the conflict but to understand where your partner is coming from. Be the compassionate fly! How you react can dramatically shift and immediately improve your connection with the one you love.
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