Emerge Therapy

Setting Limits on Conflict in your Relationship

General

All couples will face differences and challenges in their relationship. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. What differentiates successful couples from those that split-up, is their ability to use these challenges as a means of enhancing their relationship.

Firstly successful couples use a style of communication that allows for problem-solving rather than prolonged conflict, and secondly, they use the differences in their relationship to develop a greater understanding of their partner. In the long term, this leads to greater intimacy and connection.


A couple consists of two individuals with different backgrounds, different relationship experience, and sometimes a different way of seeing the world. Inevitably this leads to a difference of opinion. This can be played out on a daily basis in a host of ways, such as how to split the household chores, how to manage finances and how to parent the children. The more important the issue, the greater the likelihood of conflict. Of course underneath these day-to-day quarrels lie deeper and more meaningful questions about the nature of the relationship: are we a team? Am I valued and appreciated? Do I feel loved?


When it comes to managing difference I see three common presentations in my couples therapy practice:


The Passive Spouse: From the outside these can look like happy, functioning couples. However, in reality, one partner is suppressing their needs and wants for the benefit of the relationship. Often these couples present in therapy when the passive spouse realizes they are not happy and seeks greater independence. Because the partners have no history of resolving difference, they often separate quickly after. The break-up often comes as a complete surprise to the dominant partner who believed the relationship to be ok.


The Conflict Avoidant Couple: Another type of couple that may look happy and content from the outside. These couples avoid conflict in one of two ways. Either a quarrel breaks out followed by a day of awkward silence before both partners continue as if the disagreement never happened. Alternatively, they talk about the subject without ever addressing the real cause of the conflict. I remember listening to a couple in my therapy room as they appeared to resolve an ongoing dispute. They both appeared satisfied with the outcome until I asked them what had been agreed, at which point neither partner could answer the question. As a result, the differences remained unresolved and at risk of becoming a growing source of tension and resentment.


The Couple in Conflict:  These couples can argue, and everyone around them knows it! In fact, the relationship becomes defined by unresolved conflict leading to hostility and resentment. When these couples present in counselling the argument has become so ingrained that neither partner is prepared to listen to the concerns of the other. Differences now appear as an insurmountable object. These couples will often say “we love each other but maybe we are just too different”.


The first task for these couples is to put some limits on the conflict. These limits act as a safe boundary around arguments that allows them to continue without escalating dangerously. Eventually I will help the couple develop a more effective communication style that allows them to resolve differences and develop intimacy, but for now, the task is to the break the cycle of hostility.


We start by setting some simple rules around the argument. There is no one-size fits all approach, as each individual is different. What is acceptable for one person may be totally unacceptable for another. A good example is swearing. I swear like a trooper, but I know for many this would be tremendously insulting. For another person, the worst insult might be “you sound just like your Mother!”


I start by asking couples to answer these four questions to make a behavioral contract. once they have made a contract I ask that they stick to it:


What is acceptable for me to say and do when we fight?

What isn’t acceptable for me to say and do when we fight?

What is acceptable for you to say and do during a fight?

What is not acceptable for you to say and do during a fight?


Really think about these questions. Be clear and specific so there is no room for misunderstanding. Be sure to include physical behaviour and tone of voice as well as what is said.


Once the couple has put some containment around the conflict we can start to move onto the next stage of developing a more effective style of problem-solving communication.

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All couples will face differences and challenges in their relationship. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. What differentiates successful couples from those that split-up, is their ability to use these challenges as a means of enhancing their relationship.

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