I haven’t forgotten that I said I was doing a mini-series on conflict and differences in relationships. But I couldn’t resist taking a little detour to blog about the lengths to which I will go in order to acquire a (free) travel mug. Anyway, enough shenanigans for now, and it’s back to serious business. I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Here is the first article that inspired my latest Relationships Awareness rant:
The answer? Spoiler alert: nothing.
“Now hold on just a hot second there, Miss Kattiewampus!” you might say. “Last time, you said that conflict was a normal part of relationships and now you’re saying couples don’t fight at all?”
Actually, no. What I’m saying (or really, what the article is saying and I’m agreeing with) is that couples usually fight about things that aren’t really important. The fighting itself is not necessarily the issue. However, these “nothing” conflicts – rather than signaling an exit sign for one or both parties in the relationship – can actually be great signposts for uncovering deeper issues that need to be addressed. Furthermore, and I cannot say this enough – the defining point is in how you as a couple handle the conflict, not the presence of the conflict itself.
“The difference between couples who make it and couples who break up is simple: the couples who make it “repair” the relationship after they’ve hurt each other. The couples that don’t repair those hurts end up with festering wounds that grow bigger by the day, the month and the year until they finally break the couple apart. Repair is absolutely crucial in any kind of relationship, particularly intimate relationships. “
Reparation instead of destruction. How does it happen?
Interestingly enough, it does not begin with an apology. A lot of times, when I know that I’ve hurt someone, I want to apologize and lay the issue to rest as soon as possible. While the spirit of wanting to mend things is important, the article raises a valid point on the importance of truly understanding how we have hurt the other person.
“Apologies only work if the person who is apologizing understands the pain that they have caused the other. The way that they can understand that pain is to hear their partner describe it.”
This is where the importance of honest communication comes in, and the necessity of establishing an environment where both partners feel safe to communicate openly with each other. The article lays out a step-by-step analysis of how to get to an apology. It starts with each person having a chance to express how the conflict made them feel and how their perceptions contributed to their feelings. This is not about making a defense, presenting the facts for one’s case as though the other person is on trial. It is a subjective expression of how you felt and what your perceptions were. The most essential element here is honesty, not who is right or wrong.
The next step in the process is more challenging: it is how you respond to your partner’s expression of their feelings and perceptions toward the conflict. It requires more than just a surface level acknowledgment, and it requires stepping outside of your own feelings and perceptions in an effort not just to acknowledge but to actually understand your partner’s point of view. This is empathy. It is difficult and it can be scary. For me, as someone who is predisposed to being a highly perceptive but very sensitive know-it-all, I easily assume that my feelings and perceptions are the correct response to the situation. Trying to set aside my point of view and not just hear someone else’s point of view but actually understand and accept it as an equally valid reaction… well, it’s not something that comes easily. But in relationships, I would suggest that being understood by your partner is perhaps more important than having your partner agree with you on everything. According to the article, empathy can be summed up in a simple (but honest) response:
“‘I get it. I understand why you felt the way you felt.'”
The next step might be even more challenging. This is the part where you take responsibility for the ways in which you contributed to the conflict. It doesn’t have to be dramatic and it doesn’t have to be extreme. But it nevertheless is a crucial element in conflict resolution. I really appreciated what the article had to say about our responsibility in relation to someone else’s feelings:
“According to some pop psychology, it’s often said that you shouldn’t make yourself responsible for somebody else’s feelings and that whoever has the feelings is totally responsible for them. However this is not necessarily true — many neuroscience studies have shown that one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person. So, in fact, we are responsible for creating feelings in each other, and it is good to take responsibility for that — both for the good and the bad.”
When you have hurt someone, you cannot “absolve” yourself of responsibility with the excuse that you cannot control how they respond to you. Our words and actions have the power to damage and the power to heal other people. This responsibility should not be taken lightly.
It is only after both partners have had a chance to express their feelings and perceptions, to show empathy toward each other, and to admit their responsibility in the conflict, that an apology truly becomes possible:
“Most of the time that apology will work because the other person now feels that their feelings and their perspective on what happened have been acknowledged, and they feel validated by the other partner. Then, when that other partner also apologizes because they too feel that their feelings and point of view have been validated, it is much easier for them both to accept the apology that allows forgiveness. That allows reconciliation, and then they can move on.”
There is one more step in the process, however: setting up preventative measures for the future. While it is true that many conflicts will be recurring and that often the same topic will come up as a point of conflict over and over again, it is still important to discuss with your partner how to better handle the situation in the future when something triggers a potential conflict.
“The last step is for each partner to give a suggestion for one thing that they themselves can do differently and one thing the other person might be able to do differently next time. They each do that in order to not only repair what has just happened but to talk about ways to avoid the same thing happening again in the future.”
All of this is about processing the conflict together. The importance of this approach is two-fold: 1) the couple is working through the conflict together rather than withdrawing from each other to “figure things out” on their own time, and 2) the issues are being addressed with direct honesty, rather than swept under the rug to fester and cause even more damage later on down the road. It is so simple in theory, and yet so difficult in the moment. But processing a conflict together can make the difference between repairing a relationship or destroying it.
“The reason that we hold onto “regrettable incidents,” and the reason they become festering wounds in our memory and in our relationships is that we haven’t processed them successfully. When we haven’t processed them, we remember them forever. They continue to fester like an abscess under the skin. However if we process it in the way that we’ve described above, we can let it go.The key throughout the entire process is to be honest, tell your perspective and listen to your partner’s perspective. When we’ve done that the small hurts no longer fester and threaten our relationship. We no longer need to hold on to it. It is processed. It is done.”