The Case For Going “Slow and Steady” To Resolve Couple Conflict

One of the most important skills I help couples build is the ability to tolerate tension between partners. The impulse to hurry up and find a solution is undeniable. Being in tension with a disagreement or two different points of view is extremely anxiety-producing and, for some, excruciating. If only there were a simple solution or a quick resolution, the pain would end, right? But when couples rush to a resolution, they often make mistakes that end up damaging their relationship in the long term.

For instance, one person may give way, and decide to “just let go of it” or “agree” in order to get their partner off their back. This stops the conflict in the moment, but it’s a recipe for building resentment over time, as well as for broken promises down the line.

Any big difference of opinion will take time to resolve. Your clients are likely to want a quick fix, but allowing things to move too fast will end up either entrenching both partners in their positions, fanning the flames of conflict, or forcing one partner to give way.

Instead, try these strategies:

  • Normalize the disagreement. Every long term couple has substantial differences, and there is nothing that makes that an emergency, in and of itself.
  • Remind them that a solid functional resolution is the goal, not a fake agreement or glossing over something important.
  • See if you can help them get curious about why their partner might see things they way they do. This is an exciting stage of relationship. This is how partners learn about their differences.
  • Support the curiosity, and guide the conversation deeper, holding space for tension, not resolution. This will create an atmosphere of creative thought and empathy rather than anxiety and hasty attempts to soothe.
  • Breathe. This can be challenging for therapists, who also would feel better if there were a simple resolution. Be gentle with yourself and go slow.

By taking time to consider the issue from multiple perspectives, rather than rushing to an imperfect solution, your clients will learn more about each other and themselves, and build the skills they need to handle the next conflict that comes up. Guiding your clients along this process is the key to nurturing their relationship’s long-term growth, rather than simply rehashing the fight of the week.

The Key To Resolving Couple Conflict? Uncovering Internal Motivation to Change

In my last post, I wrote about one of my strategies for working with couple conflict when partners strongly disagree. This week, I’m going to talk more about how I make space for partners to shift and grow by taking pressure off of gridlock, and creating a more creative, fluid space for collaboration.

When a couple disagrees about something, they often get gridlocked, meaning divergent positions become more and more solidified. As they argue, the partners can become completely polarized. This is the opposite of the flexibility, collaboration, creativity, flow, and teamwork that are necessary to work through a conflict in a way that strengthens a relationship rather than damaging it.

When couples are polarized, one partner is holding down position A, and the other is holding down position Z. It feels like a complete no-go. Only one can “win”, unless both give up something big, and they reluctantly and resentfully compromise to meet at position M. But if we can go a little deeper, we’ll discover that nearly always both partners can actually relate to both positions. They just feel like they need to really stomp on their position, because otherwise their partner will grab that slack and pull on it and “win.”

When I see this kind of situation, I focus first on one partner, and ask, “Is there any part of you that can relate to what she’s saying? Do you kind of see why she thinks it would be great to (save money, have kids, get a kitten, keep the kitchen cleaner)?” Then that partner can say “Well, I don’t agree, but I do see that there are probably advantages to having clean kitchen counters.”

I can continue that conversation, creating space for Partner A to have both positions. “This part of me thinks it would be great to have clean counters for all the reasons my partner says. But this other, much larger, part of me says ‘Hell no, this takes too much time, and it is not necessary, and I have more important things to do. If she wants cleaner counters, she can clean them, but not me.’”

As the dialogue progresses, both partners explore multiple perspectives within themselves. I help them go a little deeper into each part, exploring why this feels important and how the issue gets under their skin.

The key is that when the focus is on Partner A, one part of Partner A is talking to the other part of Partner A. Partner B is not yet in this discussion, and neither am I, other than coaching it along. The beauty of this is that it becomes apparent that the impasse for Partner A is within Partner A, and then when partner B does a similar exploration, we see that the same is true for Partner B. Often it turns out they agree far more than they disagree.

Sometimes I tell people “You are blaming this impasse on your partner, but the disagreement is actually inside of yourself. A part of you wants this, and another part wants that. You’re letting your partner argue for one position, while you argue for the other, but really you both hold both points of view.” Then I ask, “Can you get curious about what your partner thinks about this issue from a really creative, fluid place, rather than a polarized place? Can you express your thoughts to your partner from a fluid place where you can see multiple aspects of the dilemma?”

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

What can you do to help a couple shift from an adversarial stance to a collaborative alliance?

Couples often come to therapy with at least one big difference or disagreement, and an expectation that I will “fix” it. They hope that I will verify that their partner is wrong and they are right–problem solved!

I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that this is not my agenda at all. Not even close.

In this and the next blog post, I’ll let you know more about my perspective, and how I work with impasses. Much of this material is drawn from the Bader/Pearson Developmental Model of Couple Therapy. The rest comes from my experience with consensus process as a Quaker.

Once I let my clients know that I won’t be acting as arbiter regarding their disagreements, they assume I will be guiding them through some sort of process to arrive at a compromise. I think many couple therapists do just that. However, I do not believe in or strive for compromise.

To me, compromise can be described as “lose/lose”, as it implies that everyone will give up something of value to them in order to “meet in the middle”. I think a middle ground that requires everyone to give up something of value sounds like quite a dull place to live in, particularly when we’re discussing lifelong commitment.

I much prefer a process of creating space for a miracle.

Gridlock is not a space for a miracle to occur. Neither is polarization. However, that is how most of us learned to disagree. We learned to lock in to “I’m right and you’re wrong.” If we have to come to an agreement, and I have to give up something, so do you. Obviously one will win, and one will lose, and I’m determined to be the one who wins.

Instead, I help my clients step into another space entirely. (This strategy comes from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, and fits my belief system perfectly.) What kind of a person do you want to be in your committed relationship? Kind? Loving? Compassionate? Reliable? Strong? Whatever it is, my next question is, when you are a compassionate (or insert another value here) partner, how do you behave? What do you do? How do you know you’re being compassionate? What does it look like? And the next question: how far from that are you now, in your current relationship? Another question: how would it benefit you directly (not your partner but you) if you were able to act from your compassionate self more often?

Every person in a relationship ends up shooting themselves in the foot with their own behaviors now and again. Until this is looked at very directly and some motivation to change is identified, that conversation about the dishes (or sex, or kids, or whatever) is not going to shift. Even if it does, it will take many months of one-step-forward-two-steps-back therapy, and that’s frustrating and discouraging for all involved.

More importantly, the magic can’t happen until the adversarial stance is changed to something more collaborative. The abovementioned sequence is designed to switch adversarial thinking (characterized by hyper-focus on the other and the oppositional forces) to self-focus. This is so important because it leads to empowerment; a realization that there is something here that I have the power to change and it will make a difference.

Next week I’ll tell you about another strategy I have for shifting the adversarial stance and working with internal impasses.