Amy: In my previous post I wrote about the unintended consequences of chronic conflict-avoidance between a couple. In that case, the conflict avoidance produced a problem with their children. Since we ALL avoid conflict to a certain extent–a necessity for the survival of a couple–I thought I’d talk a bit about what HEALTHY and UNHEALTHY conflict looks like.
Let me first talk about the UNHEALTHY. In my family therapy practice virtually all the couples come in with their version of chronic, unresolved conflict. In fact, that’s often their ticket of admission. I think many of the tensions underlying these relationships have to do with the challenging task of fitting two crazy people into one living, breathing organism called a Couple.
I’ve often said that all marriages are “mixed” marriages: All intimate relationships are inhabited by two people whose upbringing, family language and family culture are vastly different from each other. Learning our partner’s “culture” and–more difficult–understanding and accepting this foreign culture can be the challenge of a lifetime. The artistry with which we navigate these bi-cultural relationships often determine the health of our relationships.
Unhealthy patterns of conflict can take a number of different forms, but, in my experience, I’ve noticed two general types: The Disconnect and The Immovable Object.
The Disconnect: I’m reminded of a couple I saw many years ago. They were sitting quietly on the couch in my office, politely responding to my questions, a cool, outwardly calm relationship. Shortly into the session–my first meeting with this couple–I commented, “Boy, you guys are really fighting like cats and dogs!” They looked startled. But it was true, and they, on some level, knew it. Their language with each other–both verbal and body–revealed a barely concealed mutual animosity that had been building for a number of years.
Sometimes these Disconnect couples come in to therapy for a “depression” in one partner, as was the case with that couple. Or they may come in following the discovery of an affair, or because of a problem with a child. They rarely come in for “couples’ therapy”, since they’ve avoided letting themselves know they have a problem. The good news is that, for many couples like these, removing the mask, giving them permission to air tensions, and beginning to explore areas of unaddressed conflict usually ends with the couple in a much better place. The process may be difficult and painful at times, since they’re typically not used to delving beneath the surface of the relationship. But, in my experience, the vast majority of couples end up feeling it’s worth the trip.
The Immovable Object: The other type of couple with a pattern of chronic, unresolved fighting is when one of the partners refuses to move. Or learn. Or acknowledge failure, or flaws. The rigid partner. This person comes in both genders, from my experience. It’s never an easy couple for a therapist to deal with, and, if things don’t change, if often bodes poorly for the long-term health of the couple.
Usually the fight involves a chronic pattern of one partner wanting to feel “heard” and the other partner shutting him or her down. That’s a rough outline, since of course there’s a lot more to it, but that’s the general drift. In these cases, the Unmovable One often has great difficult becoming a “patient” in the therapy. Usually, for historical reasons related to their upbringing, they over-protect themselves against their partner. Often these folks were little doctors in their families growing up, where they had a lot of emotional responsibility and/or authority. They are typically not used to asking for help or being “wrong”. And usually this rigidity plays out in their relationships in the world; They have a rather brittle self-image that resists input from other people.
The fighting with this kind of couple has more heat to it, more intensity. The conflicts are out in the open, and repetitive. The partner of the Unmovable One usually wants acknowledgement, or a closeness that allows for both people’s needs and wants. This partner is fighting to be heard, and understood. To be included the relationship, fully. Both people usually experience their marriage as a frustrating stalemate.
Of course, the stress-test of marriage proves very difficult for the Immovable Object couple. Marriage, or any intimate partnership, usually brings with it the humiliation of our false selves. Many of our self-image constructs that we’ve cultivated over the years, in the context of our upbringing and later, undergo some degree of challenge and revision in the process of living as a couple. Our ability to tolerate, to be curious about, our many “selves” is an indicator of our emotional health.
A few words about Healthy Fighting: First, let me say, a marriage with no fighting is suspect, in my view. Intimacy always involves rough edges, tensions, dissonance as well as harmony. But what healthy fighting contains that the unhealthy version lacks is a crucial ingredient: Understanding.
In healthy fights, there is resolution, which is facilitated by understanding. Each partner–in some way, shape or form, understands where the other person was coming from, what he or she was upset about, what it meant. Healthy fighting involves process: The quarrel is not swept under the rug, or prematurely squashed. This process involves patience, and the ability to tolerate dissonance and tension along the way. And an underlying sense of commitment to the well-being of the couple helps infuse the fight with a sense of trust.
There’s more to be said on this subject, of course. Dave and I will continue to explore this question, from our office perspective, and from personal experience.
And to our readers: What are your thoughts about how couples fight?