COUPLES AND CONFLICT
Couples and Conflict
One of my foremost jobs as a psychotherapist is to be a listener. All day, every day people come to me to talk about their problems. As you can imagine, many times patients want to talk about their spouses, specifically how they fight with them. So I want to talk a little bit about couples and fighting. Whether it’s about money, children, career, housework, all couples fight. Nobody gets along 100% of the time without some conflict. It’s all a matter of how you resolve that conflict. I had a patient named Roxanne come in for her session yesterday, and she told me that she and her husband Bill fight all the time. One yells at the other and the other yells back louder until it reaches a terrible crescendo and both storm off in opposite directions. She said she had no choice in this, he just made her so angry and they just didn’t get along. I told her that the first thing that had to happen for the relationship to move forward was to decide that it wasn’t his fault and wasn’t her fault, it was both of them. She immediately recoiled and told me I was dead wrong. That it was all Bill’s fault. He was never home, he didn’t want to be a part of the family, he this, he that, ad nauseum. I asked her about how they fight, her yelling and screaming…was it working? Was it resolving anything? She launched in again, saying it wasn’t her fault, it was his fault because he made her yell. He antagonized her. I told her that she didn’t have to go to every fight he invited her to, she had the choice. This is a point that I think a lot of couples miss. Just because your spouse may be baiting you, looking for a fight, it doesn’t mean you have to give them what they’re looking for. You don’t have to respond at all. You have a choice in how you behave.
I explained to Roxanne that the only way to start to resolve an issue is to not yell and scream, not raise a voice. Once you express anger, you’ve made the situation worse. I suggested to her that the only way to make the situation better when Bill is yelling and screaming is to fall silent. Until the yelling stops, nothing productive can be accomplished. A conflict cannot be resolved through warfare. Once people raise their voice, no interaction happens. For instance, if you raise your voice at a child, they shut down. They will hear nothing you say. The same happens in couples. If one raises their voice at the other, from that moment forward, nothing constructive happens. So, if you’re married or in a relationship and you find you are having problems or there is fighting, and yelling, you are responsible for your response, and your response should be to not yell back, fall back. All yelling does is put fuel on the fire. If you fall silent, eventually they will stop yelling, and once the yelling stops, resolution can start. You can begin a conversation by discussing what the problem is, why you keep arguing, and what you can each do to make things better. That’s the only way these things will really be resolved. But you have to be willing to change how you respond to conflict and how you fight. Learn to fall back if baited. Talk should replace screaming matches.
I hear so often in my office “it’s not me, it’s him, it’s her, they’ll never change, we tried that” blah, blah, blah, blah. If you really want to effect change in your relationship, change your own behavior and then the reaction you get back from your spouse or partner will change. Stop yelling and start conversing. Focus on what you can each do to make the relationship better. To resolve conflict, cooler heads should always prevail over heated emotions.