Reaching Out for Better Communication
When we experience a conflict in the relationship with our partner, we usually feel negative emotions such as frustration, anger, fear, sadness and resentment.
The couple does not seem to be a safe place in these moments and, as human beings, we tend to react to “dangerous situations” with our survival mechanisms.
This means that we deal with conflicts with our partner with the same set of tools we use to react to any other dangerous situations we face: the flight or flee response. So, when there is a conflict with our partner, we tend to react using the so called reptilian brain - as we share this part of the brain with all animals. The reptilian brain is where all the automatic and unconscious responses are located - from breathing and heartbeat to survival instincts.
Therefore, if you don’t feel “safe” in the relationship, because for example you are arguing and you feel attacked, you will automatically react with one of the five survival reactions, that we can see as the basic survival skills for couple.
1. Fight. Within the couple you can fight through verbal or physical aggression. Verbal aggression - such as raising voices, swearing or blaming - can cause the relationship to deteriorate and it can bring to an escalation of incomprehension and resentment. Couples often say things they don’t even think, just to hurt or prove their point.
2. Flee. People who flee would leave the situation to avoid the conflict and they would usually take shelter into work, sports, and walks or in talking to a friend. Alcohol and drug abuse and binge eating canals represent a way to avoid the conflict by becoming numb.
3. Freeze/play dead. It is possible that during a fight people would stare through their partners, frozen. They usually experience anxiety, sometimes even panic attacks, and they just don't know what to say or what to do in front of a conflictual situation.
4. Submit. A typical sentence said to their partners by those who are submitting would be “Okay, whatever you want, just stop the nagging!”. In order to avoid conflicts, people would accept the partner’s point of view without thinking and even if this would usually make them feel sad.
5. Hide. Some people would try to get away from a conflict by going to another room, hoping that by hiding behind a door the partner would leave them alone.
We all learn our way/ways of reaction to conflicts during childhood and we still use the same behaviours in the relationship with our partner. Raising awareness on these behaviours is the first step in order to change and deal with conflicts in a different, more constructive way.
Couple therapy as well as individual therapy can help you understand not just how you react to conflicts, but also how you can change the instinctive and automatic reactions into reflective ones. Through therapy you will learn how to use more evolved parts of your brain, so not to be guided by the reptilian brain every time you have an argument with your partner. You will be able to create emotional safety within the couple and feel more connected to your partner.
Partners who tend to avoid conflict in their relationships or who get into a passive aggressive pattern of silence, sulking and sniping at each other will need to both learn first of all to feel safe enough within their own skin to risk bringing up dissatisfaction in an open manner. If the fear of abandonment and associated risks are very high it is unlikely that either partner will engage in an open conversation about the difficulties in the relationship. Both partners will have to actively tune in with more awareness to the feelings that get triggered when feeling angry, frustrated or annoyed.
What was the response to these feelings in childhood? How was conflict addressed in your family? Did you witness your parents resolve differences in a calm, constructive manner? How much talking about difficulties was done in your family? Answers to these questions will give you an insight into the way that you may approach conflict.
Firstly, we can try and mentalize what is happening for the other person, why they are behaving the way they are. In placing the focus on the other person this makes us feel less angry and anxious because we are wanting to find out what is underpinning the other person’s behaviour.
This means that we are less likely to take things personally and are more likely to focus our attention upon how the other person is feeling and behaving rather than focusing on our own emotions. In figuring out what is going on for the other person we may then automatically become less angry or anxious because we develop a capacity to empathise with them rather than becoming angry ourselves.
Secondly, we can learn non-confrontational communication. In asking non-confrontational questions, the person that we are questioning then may start to feel that we truly are interested in understanding what is happening for them, and they may experience being heard. This in turn can make the other person less aggressive and more open to us and any suggestions we make.
A good idea is to write down a few exploratory questions that we can use with people and to practise saying these questions out loud to ourselves before then saying them to another person. The following is a short list of some non-confrontational questions that we can use in our daily lives:
· You said that X, I am wondering if you can explain what you meant by this?
· Can you tell me what the issue is as you see it?
· I wonder if you can tell me more about X?
· Can you tell me what concerns you most?
· I noticed that when you were talking about X you were looking very angry, can you perhaps tell me more about X?
· Are you saying that …. Can you explain further?
· Sounds like you are feeling frustrated/angry/betrayed/annoyed?
· I am wondering if you can tell me what this feels like for you?
· I am wondering how I might help you to achieve X?