Counsellor Hills – I once believed that the best indicator of a great relationship was a lack a conflict, arguments or disagreement. I thought that if we “got along” we would be just fine.

Being an extremely sensitive person by nature, aka “thin skinned”, it was very painful, uncomfortable and downright scary to be faced with criticism or ongoing disagreements. I also thought that if there was conflict I was probably with the wrong person, someone or something had to change or I should just give in and find peace in surrender and compliance. Generally the third option was my preferred approach.

The problem with that approach however was that I could have peace temporarily but the consequence was an accumulation of resentment toward my partner, loss of self respect and rarely having what I really needed.

This posed a serious dilemma because in order to have peace I had to end that relationship and find someone who would agree with me all the time and never criticize or challenge me. I tried that for a while and then resented his passivity and unwillingness to make decisions or carry his weight in the relationship.

I also discovered that having my way wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. I felt alone, abandoned and stuck. I wasn’t growing and I didn’t feel loved and cared about. I had to find a balance and that required change on my part.

I wanted intimacy with emotional depth and honesty but I didn’t know how to have a fair fight or work through difficulties. To my dismay I couldn’t have one without the other. I eventually found the help I needed in the form of therapy and self help books and stayed out of relationships until I became better able to express my needs and hang in there without totally caving or running away when there was conflict.

I’ve seen similar patterns in my work with all types of couples and individuals – gay, straight, divorced, single, married most of whom would say they were stuck and clueless about how to navigate the mine field of communication with their committed intimate partner. When struggling with their relationships, whether from the past or in the present, most people will say that communication is and has been the biggest problem.

What they really mean to say is “I don’t know how to handle anger and conflict.” Most of us communicate fairly well until we encounter disagreements, criticism, unreasonableness or basic human differences. Particularly in the early stages of counseling, clients want me to help them eliminate all conflict so they can live happily ever after. This is what it often looks like:

How couples manage conflict – predictable cycles.

1. I’m on fire!” This was one man’s reaction to an emotionally intense exchange with his wife during a counseling session. Although Judith was just trying to “explain” her point of view, Charlie only heard criticism and blame. At one point he shouted “I’m on fire! Cant you see that!?” He was asking her to back off for her own good and that of the relationship. Up to this point when Charlie became this angry Judith would try harder to state her thoughts, explain, and connect with him. She was pursuing and he was running. This pattern was repeated at home every few days in their attempts to express feelings and unmet needs to each other. It often ended in a verbally abusive exchange and then silence for days.

2. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Jay wants to “talk” Lindsey doesn’t. Whenever he says the word “talk” she knows she is about to hear more of what Jay thinks is wrong with her. She thinks to herself “He is so needy, why can’t he just take care of himself and leave me alone?” She then gets busy and promises to talk later. It doesn’t happen and the cycle continues while resentments build and their connection becomes strained and distant. When they finally get around to it there is an explosion of pent up frustration from Jay andfear and hurt from Lindsey…

3. “What do you want from me? Just tell me and I’ll do it!” Carrie gets upset with Chris because he promises to help out but forgets to follow through. He is gone a lot and she sometimes jumps on him with a long list of things he hasn’t done when he gets home. This perpetual problem of the To Do list may not be the real problem but they can’t seem to figure out what is.

How can we change our patterns? Just solving surface problems is not the solution in the long term. Keep in mind that some things are deeply rooted in childhood and may require individual and/or couples counseling to resolve.

Things you may NOT have learned from your parents:

1. We all need to feel that the person we love cares about us, respects us and will be there for us when we turn to them. That is called secure attachment. When we don’t have it we get testy and pick fights over other things. When we do feel attached we are easier to live with and we don’t notice things that would otherwise bother us deeply.

2. We cannot change other people, especially their long term habits, personalities, pace and energy, or make them care equally about what we think is important. It has nothing to do with love. It’s just very hard to change. We can ask them to try but don’t expect dramatic change and don’t use the “If you loved me . . . “tactic. If you keep trying to change someone with criticism they just feel beat up and worthless. They don’t want to please you and will stop trying. Acceptance “as is” may bring about more willingness to bend and grow

3. Good will can go a long way toward resolving chronic conflicts. Just be nice, polite, kind, and grateful, make eye contact and smile more. Do this consistently even when your partner isn’t reciprocating. Do it long enough to soften the tone and notice the change in energy between you and. It has to be honest and genuine however and can’t be just an experiment to see what happens. If nothing else, you will like yourself for it.

4. Before you make demands, criticize, or “talk” about something difficult, ask yourself if you have enough good will between you. If the emotional bank account is empty, hold off until you notice your sense of humor coming back and your defensiveness decreasing. You will be more successful and happier in general.

5. When someone in the midst of conflict says they need space or time to think, give it to them! Everyone processes things there own way. You may have trouble with the silence, feeling abandoned and cut off, but pursuing will only take you back into the mess again. Give him/her a little time and try again but while you are waiting, think only about your part in what went wrong instead of replaying what you said and how wrong they are. If you are the one who needs space, tell your partner what you need and respectfully, without drama, step back. While you are each alone, remember that being right can be a lonely place.

6. Is PEACE really what you are seeking? If it is, that’s great and it isn’t that hard to achieve. If emotional honesty and a deepening attachment are your goals then don’t expect peace all the time. The best connections often come from trials and challenges and the personal growth that follows.

If you are looking for a Counsellor Hills, feel free to contact Deborah to book an initial consultation.