- A social psychologist described five basic ways that interpersonal discord is approached, and couples collaboration is clearly the best of them.
- To maximize a collaborative, conflict-negotiating union, couples must discuss what changes they’d generally like to see evolve between them.
- It’s wise to adopt the relationship-enhancing habit of asking your mate: “Is there anything else you view as linked to what we’re talking about?”
Distressed Couples: When Misunderstandings and Conflict Become the Norm
Bob is really irritated with Helene. He's just finished a project that Helene begged him to undertake several years ago. Helene could only get herself to say: "Well, what a relief that, finally, you got around to organizing all that stuff overloading the garage." And such a token recognition wasn't nearly enough to satisfy him.
What Bob needed was for Helene to elaborate in far greater detail her appreciation for his tackling this laborious, time-consuming task. And this Helene wasn't willing to do since she'd long resented his insensitivity in designating virtually every household task to her without once acknowledging how many personal sacrifices that required.
Or, let's say Frank has resentfully pulled away from Irene because when he examined their latest credit card statement, he couldn't help noticing how high it was. And it was obvious Irene's purchase of clothes and jewelry far exceeded the budget for such discretionary items they'd agreed to.
Weary of confronting her, for it hadn't ever been successful and, too, led her to deny him when he wanted physical intimacy, it seemed prudent just to leave the matter alone, despite his fear that eventually he wouldn't be able to pay off their (needless) debt.
How Couples All Too Often Deal With Conflict
Sooner or later, most couples vent their displeasures and disappointments, although some shy away from doing this indefinitely for fear their efforts might make things worse. And if, in their futile attempts to resolve antagonizing differences, they resorted to the language of blame, it's hardly surprising that this approach would have failed them.
Yet many couples conscientiously striving to clear the air between them don't fare much better. Even if they're on the right path, typically, they don't take it far enough. Certainly not to the extent that would enable them to grasp the psychological and moral complexities of their longer-term relational frustrations and disappointments.
Regrettably, these largely unconscious aspects of a couple's disharmony are pretty much inevitable. And until they can be recognized and effectively addressed, their relationship will progressively weaken.
Over time, as their (usually) mutual sense of alienation takes hold, they're bound to feel disillusioned in their union. Lost will be joyful feelings of connection, closeness, compassion, and trust: in short, the buoyant optimism that characterized their courtship.
Why, Despite Employing Various Methods of Conflict Resolution, Most Couples Succeed Only Temporarily
Although focused on workplace (vs. couples) conflict, social psychologist David W. Johnson (2021) has aptly described five basic ways that interpersonal discord is approached. Here are these five styles, each of which he's whimsically attached an animal's name to:
1. Competing ["Shark"]: One party, single-mindedly and aggressively, pursues their self-interest or goals, regardless of how it will affect the other party.
2. Avoiding ["Turtles"]: One or both parties evade their conflict, abandoning their goals and the relationship, as their withdrawal leaves ongoing issues unresolved.
3. Accommodating ["Teddy Bears"]: One party, to protect the relationship, allows the other party to win, sacrificing their integrity in the process.
4. Compromising ["Foxes"]: More concession- than solution-oriented, the focus is on what each party must give up for their losses to be split equally; that way, each of them can win, despite their shared victory not reflecting what either of them would experience as ideal.
5. Collaborating ["Owls"]: Understanding conflict as resolvable, if only enough energy is put into the process, both parties open-mindedly search for viable pathways to achieve their individual goals while also protecting the relationship.
Clearly, of these five conflict-resolution styles, the most advantageous one is the Owls. But it still leaves something to be desired. In targeting only the immediate difficulty, it ignores the possibility that it may be symbolic of a larger and deeper problem yet to be fully recognized, confronted, and resolved.
So, without exploring chronic issues of greater breadth—which are kindred to and expand on a couple's current impasse—what's not attended to is a long-term solution capable of addressing a variety of closely related issues.
Unfortunately, far-reaching relational disharmonies can't be rectified if couples aren't availing themselves of the opportunity to connect them to the current conflict.
How to Extend the Owl's Wingspread: "Is There Anything Else You Think We Should Talk About?"
Note that the two examples offered initially represent, first, a woman's withholding her appreciation for her partner's garage clean-up because she's never felt adequately acknowledged for her far more comprehensive contributions to the household; and, second, a husband's cautiously unexpressed vexation with his (shopaholic) wife's going way beyond their agreed-upon budget to buy herself personal adornments.
What each couple discussed, or rather avoided discussing, was how the behavior in question left them feeling—namely, disrespected. In their constrained communication, they may have managed to keep their relationship relatively safe, but no more than that.
It can't be overstressed that the reason one or both members of a couple tend to avoid conflict is that facing relational challenges typically involves unforeseeable emotional risks. How our partner—our "significant other"—views us is a matter we don't take lightly. For no one has the power to hurt our feelings or rattle our cage like they do.
So given our sense of (largely unconscious) vulnerability in this pivotal union, we tend to shy away from bringing up annoyances that could lessen our feelings of safety and security. But while this tactic may serve to keep our anxiety at bay, nonetheless, acting like the "turtle" doesn't—and can't—resolve anything. On the contrary, what hasn't been confronted is likely to fester inside us.
So for the long-range welfare of our relationship, what's required is that we bypass our self-protective "turtlehood" or rapacious "sharkhood" to operate from our much wiser "owlhood." And more than this, to extend our collaborative, conflict-negotiating relationship to include discussing what changes, in general, we'd like to see evolve between us.
Here we could move beyond the immediate upset to discover a mutually acceptable solution for intimately connected, nagging issues that have kept our relationship from reaching its full potential.
By working to change what's changeable and by discerning differences that, realistically, aren't changeable (and so, caringly locating ways to accommodate them), we can deliberately set about transforming the quality of our relationship.
So don't be in a hurry to leave the table as soon as you've handled your present-day conflict. Because if you can stay and examine whether there's something of greater depth or breadth associated with the (narrower) conflict you've just resolved, the dividends can be considerable.
Assuming you're both still in a good frame of mind to further explore the issue, there are many related things that might be fruitful to discuss.
For instance, say you've finished confronting a situation about one of you interrupting or speaking over the other, and the interrupting party has taken full responsibility for the behavior, pledging to be more mindful of it in the future.
Pursuing this topic further—and with the same compassion, restraint, diplomacy, and tact adhered to earlier—the interrupter might explore the origins of their interpersonally disruptive behavior.
Did their own parents regularly model such behavior? Might this happen whenever the topic of discussion begins to make them anxious? And so on.
Focusing on the party interrupted, how does their partner's maladaptive habit make them feel? Marginalized? Disregarded? Sad? Angry? Resentful? Not cared about? More detached and less interested in having sex?
So, to recapitulate, get into the relationship-enhancing habit of asking your partner: "Is there anything else that what we've been talking about might be bringing up for you...?"
© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Carr, S. (2023, Apr 10). Whether you’re a ‘shark,’ ‘teddy bear’ or ‘fox,’ here’s how to ease conflict with family and friends. https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/10/health/conflict-style-family-friends-wel…
Johnson, D. W. ( 2021, May 11). Module 11: Conflict and negotiation, conflict management styles.
Real, Terrence. (2022). Us: Getting past you & me to build a more loving relationship. New York: Rodale: Goop press.
Seltzer, L. F. (2015, Oct 29). Compromise made simple: 7 handy tips for couples. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201510/compr…