Navigating persistent couple conflict

By Rev. Jim Innes 

Most healthy couples argue and fight.

In her book Should I Stay or Should I Go? licensed psychologist R. Durvasula writes, “fighting means you care about the relationship”. She argues that, “when fighting goes away completely, sometimes one or both people have checked out.”

Fighting can lead to greater intimacy. But only when the fighting moves beyond the whacky stage and a resolution is found. For some couples, the resolution is difficult to find and the whacky stage persists longer than necessary. This can lead to heartrending consequences.

The Gottman Institute, a research based approach to relationships, has done studies revealing that 69% of marital conflict arises due to unresolved issues that persistently dog the couple. In one article it states: “All couples have them – these problems are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face. They are either 1) fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict, or 2) fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs.”

Gottman’s research into this area indicates four ‘signs’ that a couple are venturing (once again) into the same unanswerable differences: “criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.” And, as I’ve experienced it, when such dynamic arises time and again, the distress and hopelessness increases, and ‘the four signs’ grow in intensity.

In my pastoral practice, I have found that one overriding reason such damaging dynamic continues is because of how difficult it is for each in the couple to identify their own ‘stuff’ (what baggage they bring that feeds the persistent issue). And each reacts as though the conflict will only get resolved when the other changes.

This finger pointing inevitably leads to one of the partner’s ’stuff’ triggering the other’s ‘stuff’ in a cyclical downward spin which, before you know it, has created an emotional cyclone that clutters resolution with flying debris.

In an excellent on-line paper called, ‘Moving Beyond Deadlock: Breaking Out of Old Marital Conflicts’, one therapist tells how this cyclical spin plays out even as they search out counselling. She explains: ”Spouses characteristically come in to initial sessions eager to tell the therapist the exact nature of their spouse’s wrongs, and to enlist the aid of the therapist in fixing the errant spouse. Each partner is looking for an ally in making the other person change… They typically find themselves less and less able to put themselves in their partner’s shoes.” (Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., LMFT, LADC).

No one is without their ‘stuff’. And when choosing a partner, like it or not, you are choosing to navigate their particular baggage formed by years of unique conditioning. And our most peaceful and loving recourse is to develop a forgiving empathy based on a humble acceptance of our own imperfections.

As I see it, self-awareness, tied tightly to humble consideration, is the most effective method of eliminating the intense hurt associated with unresolvable couple issues.

In other words, if anything will ever settle those persistent disputes, it is acknowledging our own ‘stuff’ and assuming the responsibility for untangling it from the fights.

None of this is easy nor obvious. It reminds me of the adage, “we must become the peace we so desperately want to find from others.”

Rev. Jim Innes is the rector of the regional Ministry of South Huron.

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