Tag Archives: The surprising role of conflict in relationships

The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 3)

Conflict in relationships

Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at how two couples, Chris and Stephanie, Leila and Franz, reflexively use “conflict loops” to cover up deeper issues and temporarily provide functionality to relationships that threaten to collapse.

Today we look at what is risked and what is asked of us as we grow through these patterns.

I take the position that we are brilliantly complex and resourceful creatures who grow and strategize with and without the benefit of conscious awareness. In other words, our conflict loops can be a kind of training ground where we build resourcefulness and capacity for facing the truth of our lives. The conflict loop in a relationship continues, below awareness, until we’re ready to see it and to face the task that it asks of us.

Imagine building a scaffold for years in your unconscious. This scaffold is made to support the weight of an as yet unknown truth about your life, about who you are or who you are meant to become. Eventually this scaffold reaches up and out of your unconscious and into the light of day. You look down with amazement at this incredible support you’ve “unknowingly” been building for yourself. Our relationships, including the challenges, are part of this.

Here’s the crucial part to understand –

Recognizing our role in the relationship system, and then changing it, is inherently risky. It is likely to break the relationship, at least temporarily, and there is no guarantee it will be put together again. We feel the risk of this at some level even if we don’t quite acknowledge it, and so we continue the cycle until until we’ve built enough depth of character, enough resilience, enough maturity to risk breakage.

Until we’re ready to confront our own dark fears (and desires) in relationship, we will continue to feel “stuck” in our own particular conflict loops.

People may come to counselling when they are ready to risk breaking the relationship… “I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve tried everything.” As Anais Nin puts it “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  What Anais Nin doesn’t say is that we can not know what blossoming will look like until we have risked breaking.

The breaking that we risk likely goes far deeper than the hot-button issue we face in our relationship. We end up facing patterns of avoidance, bullying tendencies, self-esteem issues or whichever life themes we’ve grown up with. Breaking our relationship system is one way to bring us to the heart of the most definitive themes in our lives. This is why the tension we feel as we simultaneously grow toward blossoming and feel the pain of breakage is so significant. Much is at stake.

In some cases entire life strategies may be crumbling. In this regard we face an initiation, a new beginning born from an impending ending. No wonder we remain stuck for so long – A huge amount of ripening and preparation is going on beneath the surface.

Even as you work to support your own awareness and insight through reading, self study, therapy etc, consider that this ripening has a life and intelligence of its own. Supporting our own ripening means being present to the tension without necessarily struggling to resolve it. Pushing for resolution too quickly can easily dig us more deeply into more conflict, more confusion. The insights we seek often reveal themselves to us only after we have exhausted ourselves. Part of our exhaustion comes from seeking answers, part comes from defending the position we’ve come to depend on. This is yet another face of that tension between blossoming and breaking.

This is difficult territory to navigate. In this short series we’ve looked through the lens of relationship systems, getting some insight into the functions that conflict provides. Let the stories of the couples in these articles sit with you. See if you can feel the tension these couples feel. Notice what the tension of your own blossoming and breaking feels like. Is there any sense of initiation in the feelings? What have you been protecting? What have you been unwilling to risk? Honesty? Feeling too much? Loss? Being wrong? Desire? Grief?

What wants to blossom –
Responsibility? Truth? Integrity? Surrender? Something else?

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 2)

Conflict in relationships 2

Last week we learned how Chris and Stephanie used their conflict loop to (temporarily) protect their relationship and avoid facing their deeper issues.

Franz and Leila have a different but similar loop.
Here’s what became apparent in our sessions –

Leila is plagued with anxiety. She constantly feels an inner struggle between her rational self and her emotional self. (This struggle is painful, but I believe critically important.)

As Leila struggles with her own internal dilemma, Franz steps in and gives voice to one side of Leila’s struggle. The rational side. Franz is in the habit of representing the rational side of every issue.

Watch what happens next –

The moment that Franz embodies the rational voice of Leila’s internal struggle, she gets some relief from her own dilemma. Suddenly Leila no longer has an internal struggle. She has an external struggle, and an enemy in Franz. Turning against Franz feels bad, but not as bad as endlessly turning against her self.

An example –
Leila works full time at a very stressful job and feels guilty about not spending enough time with their infant son. Their current childcare is not sustainable. Leila is thinking about preschool, but has mixed feelings. She struggles with her familiar internal dilemma. Franz sees her struggle and steps in with his own opinion, which is always the rational point of view.

“Think about it Leila, preschool is the only logical solution.”

Leila reflexively snaps at Franz and accuses him of being cold. The internal struggle that Leila was facing has now been externalized, and Leila no longer has to feel her dilemma. She can now project the criticism that she had for herself out onto Franz. This is their loop. It’s incredibly functional.

Franz, for his part, gets to be the logical one, which is important for his identity. He manages to continue avoiding feeling too much, a holdover from a strategy he learned early on in his family life. He also plays the unlikely role of rescuer for Leila, temporarily saving her from the endless conflict she faces in herself, and from the anxiety this inner conflict creates in her.

Franz is essentially fearful that Leila cannot handle her internal turmoil, that she might crack, and so he rescues her from herself. The resulting relationship conflict is painful, but apparently preferable to the fear of watching Leila implode.

At some level Leila is aware of the role Franz plays. If Franz waits too long to step in, her internal anxiety becomes unmanageable and she baits him with “What do you think?”. And the pattern plays out again. Functional.

As long as Franz takes on the voice of reason, Leila is spared the task of confronting her own dilemmas. Coming to terms with contradictory impulses, values, and desires is an important task we all face. But it’s hard work that we unconsciously protect ourselves from doing until we’re ready.

In session, I explain that Franz’s task in this case is to hold back on offering his opinion to create some space where Leila can wrestle with her own struggles. I assure them I am not asking Franz to withdraw. On the contrary, I want him to be exquisitely present, to slow down the process enough that he can pinpoint the moment where he gives in to his own anxiety and responds habitually. From that precise point, new possibilities emerge.

Leila and Franz were initially intimidated by the implications of these insights, which isn’t surprising, given the enormous function that their conflict loop has been fulfilling, but they’ve been willing to stretch themselves and experiment with what they’ve learned.

Next week we’ll tie the pieces together and look at what is risked, and what is required, to change these deeply embedded patterns and open a new chapter of relationship.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

It was deja-vu. Chris and Stephanie were arguing about dishes. Again. Her tolerance for a messy house was lower than ever since the baby came. His tolerance for being nagged or pushed was just as low. And so they bickered in circles. Tempers flared, ultimatums were declared and a familiar pattern played out until they both collapsed, each feeling isolated and exhausted. The whole thing would likely repeat tomorrow.

Repeating painful relationship patterns hurts. It makes us feel broken, hopeless. We wonder – Isn’t life hard enough with kids, dirty laundry, sexual frustration and work stress? What’s wrong with us? Why are we so dysfunctional?!

I’ve come to believe that our familiar patterns of conflict, far from being dysfunctional, actually have crucial functions to fulfill in the relationship, at least for a time.

After a few sessions with Stephanie and Chris, a pattern emerged –

Stephanie would launch into a complaint or grievance. Then before she could finish her thought, Chris would interrupt her and begin playing devil’s advocate, analyzing and reframing her experience. Specifically, he would emphasize their accomplishments or goals, putting a positive spin on the issue, or defending his actions –

“Yes, yes, yes, but you have to agree that we’ve gotten better.”

Every time? Really? Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? Just the other day you said…”

Again and again Chris would hijack Stephanie’s thought mid-sentence. Even though we were working on the phone, I began to viscerally feel his anxiety and his need to manage (and effectively minimize) her experience. There was a sense of constant interruption, not just of the conversation, but of a deeper process that was trying to happen.

Stephanie and Chris were repeating their loop of criticism and defensiveness because it allowed each of them to avoid this deeper process for a little longer.

As we continued counselling it became clear that Stephanie was being confronted with the possibility that her husband would never meet her expectations. With a young child to raise, this was a terrifying prospect. Chris was being confronted with the flipside – The possibility that Stephanie would leave because he did not fulfill her expectations. “Not good enough” was the story of his childhood and the shadow that he avoided in his adult life.

These two underlying issues were creating enormous anxiety in each of them. Their conflict loop would allow them to discharge enough of this anxiety to remain relatively functional while continuing to avoid confronting their core issue.

Stephanie would focus on Chris’s minor daily infractions rather than addressing her own serious doubt about the relationship (facing the depth of her doubt might ultimately require her to make the difficult choice to either end the relationship or learn to accept Chris as he is – equally unappealing options). Chris would deflect and minimize Stephanie’s criticisms because he could intuit where they were potentially headed… ie – to his ultimate rejection and termination as partner. Chris had plenty of motivation to interrupt this process at every opportunity! Stephanie and Chris would unconsciously collude in seemingly pointless bickering so they could each avoid facing these most difficult aspects of their lives together.

Next week we’ll look at the experience of Franz and Leila, another couple playing out relationship conflict with a surprising function.
Then in week three we’ll tie the pieces together and look more deeply at what is risked, and what is required to change these “functional” conflict patterns.

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

 

8-week Relationship Intensive - Justice Schanfarber

 

Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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