“It’s a never ending battle”, said Tom. As soon as he said one word, he saw the look of anger and disgust on his wife’s face. It could be due to anything. Last week her brother was in town so he arranged to play golf with them on Sunday. He thought he did a good deed. He wanted to spend some time with my brother-in-law, so he told Jenene about this trip on Saturday in front of her brother. He thought she would be happy, but instead, she went off in a rage.
“What about me?!” she screamed, “I have to prepare breakfast and take care of the kids, while you go out to play golf! It ‘s not the going to play golf that’s the problem … well, it’s not only the golf playing. It’s everything!”
We’ll be having a normal conversation one moment, then the next we are angry and yelling, then the next I can feel the distance building between us. It feels as if we live in two different countries. My problem is that this happens every single time, there is never a single, normal conversation that does not end up in conflict.
Tom is feeling as if every interaction with his wife will almost, without doubt, lead into an argument or fight. Tom wants to be able to be able to express himself, but given the situation he’s already in, set himself up for failure.
Just imagine the situation: Look around your room – it does not matter where you are right now. Just for a moment pick your head up and look around, now close your eyes and look in a completely different direction. Now I want you to look back and scan your room, but this time look at everything except the color blue. Take a look, make sure to just skip over everything that looks blue, just do it now. Okay are you back? Did you skip over everything that is blue? Did you find anything that is blue? Of course you did. You probably tried hard to look away or tell yourself, “Don’t look at blue, don’t look at blue”. However you could not help yourself. You’re like a magnet attracted to everything closely resembling blue.
Tom is trying so hard not to get into a conflict with his wife, but no matter how hard he tries or what happens, he is already in it before the conversation even starts. His current experience over the last five days, a week, or a month, has automatically triggered him and his wife into a very specific state. We call this the conflict state.
Recently, at my office, a couple were trying to have a conversation with the aim of not getting into a conflict. So they decided to have a conversation in front of me. They faced each other and just started talking about their kids. Before the wife could say a word, the husband pointed a finger at her and said, see she is wearing the angry face, she’s angry, this will go nowhere. The wife was surprised. I was surprised. She was not angry and was trying to make a genuine attempt to engage, but a signal to him showed that her face looked angry.
So there’s a sudden point to any conflict resolution skill. The first step is to get into a state where you believe your partner will not attack. This may be agreed on by the both of you. One of the biggest challenges in dealing with conflict is that we as human beings automatically try to defend ourselves when we perceive a threat is around us. Take a wife and husband for example: When your spouse or your significant other is talking to you, it may not seem like a threat, compared to someone pointing a gun at you and asking you to hand over all your money. However, our emotional brain can barely tell the difference, based on your past experiences and how you have viewed this threat with your partner, your body automatically reacts to the threat situation. You cannot control when this is activated. We humans automatically become defensive. We try to respond to our partners before they can ever finish a sentence, this is called a defensive state.
If someone verbally threatens you or your family, an appropriate response would be to scream, yell, fight back, protect yourself, and show them you’re not afraid. However in a coupled relationship and a romantic relationship when we respond to our partners calmly and rationally, they do not feel hurt and neither do you. The second and most important part of resolving a conflict therefore is to give your partner that feeling, that although your partner may disagree with you, what you’re saying is actually being heard. When you make your partner feel heard, there is no conflict you cannot overcome with the both of you working towards a common goal.
It’s easy to understand this concept. If you don’t have much experience with making your partner feel heard, it is difficult to give your partner that experience that they’re looking for to overcome this conflict. If you can just master this wonderful tool, it’s a great starting point to help you resolve any conflict in a relationship. Go ahead and try this, and see how this works out for the both of you. If it still doesn’t work, there’s a deeper feeling associated with the current state that needs to be addressed first, before you can go ahead and make your partner feel heard.