When faced with conflict with someone who is important to us, we all have default strategies that tell us how to handle it. These are shaped by our personalities, our life experiences in general, and our experience in relationship with the person. While these strategies are unique to each person and the situation, they tend to fall into a couple main categories. What’s more, people tend to be in relationship with someone of the opposite type. This can be really confusing and make our partner’s responses easily misunderstood.
(Please note: Keep in mind that this is a brief description of general categories and not everyone will recognize themselves in them.)
One type tends to pursue their partner when things don’t seem right. This might look like searching for or even demanding answers, or being persistent about wanting to talk about something. For those of us who identify with this type it can be hard to take time and space if needed. It can feel like it is urgent to know if our partner really cares about us and really wants to be in the relationship.
Another type tends to withdraw from situations when things heat up. This might look like trying to shut down conflict by checking out of the conversation or refusing to engage in the fight. It could even look like physically leaving the room or the situation. For those of us who identify with this type it can be really difficult to stay through conflict because we worry that the conflict itself, or us personally, will damage our partner and/or the relationship. When this is the case, leaving can feel like the best thing to do.
Usually these responses are coming from good places. We want to protect the relationship from the conflict or we want to resolve the issue at hand for the benefit of the relationship. However, this can get tricky when our responses don’t fix things, or when our partner’s response is different than our own. When our natural inclination is to fight for the relationship and for resolution, it can feel like your partner doesn’t care about you or the relationship when they try to shut down the conflict by not participating or leaving. And, likewise, if conflict feels scary or dangerous and you worry that fighting will make things worse, having a partner who just keeps trying to talk about it can feel very overwhelming.
When one person needs answers or acknowledgement and the other needs space it can feel that it isn’t possible to find a solution that will benefit both partners. And when that happens, it usually feels like one of you have to win, and this fuels the disagreement and the fight itself. However, knowing what is motivating your partner to act the way that they do can be really valuable in those moments. If you know that your partner is retreating in order to reduce the conflict and protect you and the relationship, this can help to more compassionately respond to your partner. Responding differently can help you step out of the cycle and change the shape and feeling of the relationship. Knowing that something else could be happening for your partner could also inspire new questions so that you can check in with your partner about what is really happening. Rather than needing to one person’s strategies to be “right,” the path to the resolution that you both want is usually found by understanding each person’s perspective and working together on a resolution.
For more information:
Read: Sue Johnson’s Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love.
My blog on not guessing
My blog on the complexity of our experiences
Watch: My video on conflict cycles
Or contact me