Losing Strategies for Couples in Conflict
Most of my clients are men so I'm uniquely positioned through my clinical experience to hear common losing strategies men (and their partners) use when attempting to resolve issues with their partners. While they take different forms, they can probably be listed under five broad headings. See if you can recognise any of these, and maybe ask yourself, how are they working for you in your relationship? Are they making the relationship better or worse?
1. Being right
How many of you have ever tried to resolve an issue by arguing over which partner was “correct” in a disagreement? Who remembered it correctly, or whose feelings were valid? What’s objectively true? Approaching differences in this way leads members of a couple into a perception or an objectivity battle. So, how well did that work for you? Here’s a bitter pill we all have swallow… Objective reality has no place in personal relationships. The relational answer to the question about who’s right, and who’s wrong is… who cares? The actual answer is how are two members of the couple going to work like a team to solve this relational issue in a way that you can both live with. The need to be right usually turns up as self-righteous indignation, and this becomes toxic. There’s no place for it because when you take the position that “I’m right” you take the position that the other person is wrong, and this is intrinsically shaming. Shaming your partner has no place in a healthy relationship, either the relationship you have with your partner, (or even more importantly, the relationship you have with yourself)
2. Controlling your partner
Trying to get your partner to see your perspective or do something they don’t really want to do is condescending. I'm not talking about isolated incidents but as a matter of course. Who are you to tell another adult what they should, or should not be doing? There are two forms that this control takes: there’s direct control (“sit down, shut up, and do what I tell you”) and there’s indirect control also called manipulation. Men tend towards direct control, and women tend towards indirect control (women are not relationally perfect either). Men give me a lot of reasons for distrusting women, and many of them are about their own parts created by the trauma of growing up in a society that explicitly or implicitly attempts to suppress or kill off aspects of their nature that are perceived as “feminine”. But mostly men tell me they mistrust women because in many situations, they feel “played” by them, and they feel “managed’ by them. From my perspective, any attempts to control ultimately are an illusion, but a costly one. You might win the battle, but the war will kill off the relationship. Because, guess what, people don’t like being controlled or feeling like they are being controlled.
3. Uncontained self-expression
Often I hear about couples where one person (or both) will attempt to resolve a present issue by bringing in every issue vaguely related to the current issue to “win” an argument. This is the projectile vomiting approach to conflict resolution. As an extreme example, it often seems to play out in couples where one person has had an extramarital relationship. If the couple decided to stay together, the person who has been cheated on in particular seems to often get triggered and then uses the abovementioned strategy to resolve/punish the cheating partner again and again. Functional moves in a relationship are moves that invite the partner to come through for you. Dysfunctional moves are ones that disable and shame your partner. So telling someone today what you they could’ve done better offers them a chance to change and move forward. Telling your partner something they could’ve done different today, two months ago, three years ago, five years ago, actually disables them and gives the no opportunity to change, and makes them feel helpless. “You always”, “You never”, “You just won’t” is disabling and emotional beats down the person who is on the other end of this. Of course the next step after this is making the criticisms characterological (“You’re selfish”, “You’re lazy”, “You’re stupid.”) Unfortunately, psychotherapy has been a great accomplice to this view of uncontained self-expression… you either suppress something (unhealthy) or express it (healthy). I would argue that not expressing every emotion or unhelpful thought process you have in life – particularly in your intimate relationship – it won’t kill you, and it will maintain your relationship in a healthy way, because not everything needs to be said, particularly if its in the realm of what I’ve mentioned above.
A common mistake partners make when they’ve been hurt in relationships is to seek “revenge”. There are two main forms of retaliation; one is rage (direct), and the other is passive aggression (indirect; a covert expression of anger by what you withhold). This puts someone in the crazy position of being of being a perpetrator while actually presenting yourself to the world as a victim. Such retaliation can be viewed as a perverse form of a communication like when the original perpetrator is victimised, they would fall on their knees and admit their original mistake. It’s laughable to think that someone would fall on their knees and say, “Oh I get it now" because the thing I did to you has happened to me…” I’ve never heard this happen. Punitiveness or punishing someone will never bring them into increased empathy or accountability.
People will move into withdrawal and give up on a particular aspect of their relationship and think that they are moving into acceptance. The trick is, are you resentful? Even a tiny bit? If there’s a shred of resentment in your feelings about an issue that you think has been resolved, that’s withdrawal, not acceptance. Also, withdrawal is different from taking some healthy space. Withdrawal is unilateral and it’s provocative distance taking, where you say, “It’s over, I’m out of here”, versus responsible distance taking which is, “Why I’m taking distance, how long I’m taking distance, and when will I be back.” The functional approach which maintains the relationship involves an explanation, and a promise of return, and it’s a break where you take care of yourself and your partner.