‘We never used to fight,’ Amanda explains at the first session of couple therapy. ‘Now all of a sudden, it seems we cannot do anything but fight or stay silent and angry.’ She and her husband of ten years, John, came to see me wanting help with their relationship, after she discovered he was having inappropriate email exchanges with his co-worker, a so-called emotional affair’. Amanda felt that the fact that they never fought was a badge of success or honour in their marriage.
Like many people who value peace and avoid conflict in a relationship, Amanda did not seem to know that a relationship without any disagreements or conflict might signal a problem. It is likely that one person or both are avoiding addressing difficult issues. Probably a breakdown of intimacy will occur when issues go unspoken and unresolved.
In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of understanding that the brain is wired and programed to fight or flight for survival. A secure relationship is created when couples know how to counter balance the primary fear-aggression response with a comfort-caring response. They know how to allow the two emotional survival systems to co-exist. How You Can Make Love and Avoid War in Your Relationship
Amanda and John seem to have avoided attending to any uncomfortable feelings like anxiety or fear and avoided fighting. Suppressing feelings and avoiding conflict is very common. It is especially common in couples where both were raised in families where emotions and relationships were not as valued as accomplishments and achievements. For them, negative feelings are supressed and channelled into achievements. Like John and Amanda, problems get ‘swept under the rug.’
How to Stop Sweeping Issues Under the Rug
According to Stan Tatkin in Wired for Love, partners who want to stay together must learn to fight well. Here are a few of his suggestions.
- Nip a fight in the bud. Make it clear you are open to discuss your partner’s concern. The way to do this is by communicating goodwill with a smile, caring with touch and interest with a calm tone of voice.
- Stay in the play zone. Remember that as children we learned that playing well together, being a good sport and following the rules makes for more fun. Giving up is not allowed. These same ideas can help us as adults to keep a sense of playfulness and perseverance in difficult conversations.
- Read your partner. Pay close attention to one another when discussing topics which are sensitive or contentious. Despite being very difficult to do, try to maintain eye contact, go slowly, and pause when either one becomes upset. Be patient and don’t interrupt. Help each other stay in the conversation. Signs to watch for include: watery eyes, tears, deep sighs, eyes rolling, sarcastic tone, raised voice etc.
- Fight smart. Make sure that our Ambassadors (the emotions that comfort and care about the relationship) are managing our Primitives (the fear, panic, anger and aggression-flight or fight responses). For more about this see How You Can Make Love and Avoid War in Your Relationship
- Good for me, good for you. Losing is not allowed. Therefore a win-win outcome means you both feel the discussion was helpful. Not always is the resolution of the issues the measure of success. Sometimes just being able to continue listening and talking should be considered a success. Both of these strengthen your relationship with each other.
- Not all problems need to be resolved. Be in it for the long haul. Adopt a policy of never avoiding anything no matter how difficult the subject. But also know that a few issues will never be resolved completely and need to be accepted as such. We need to accept that two different people will see things differently.
John and Amanda eventually learned to stop sweeping issues under the rug. As they worked through experiencing difficult conversations and uncomfortable emotions together, they felt the success of teamwork by either hanging in together or resolving the issue. They became light-hearted at times when John made a witty quip to help ease the tension. The increased closeness, the sense of playfulness and laughter helped Amanda become confident at knowing when and how to address an issue of concern. Instead of being proud of avoiding conflict, John and Amanda became proud of their newly strengthened capacity to resolve problems.