Okay, no one likes being stuck in negative conflicts with someone you love. For too many couples, cyclical stuck arguments are all too familiar.
I've been posting about conflicts in relationships for a couple weeks, so if you've been reading along you're familiar with the mindset necessary to shift stuck conflicts, but you might be looking for a step two. You can get release judgment, but then what?
Imagine your conflict pattern is a train on a track. Most of the couples I work with know every stop on the line, "First you say something grouchy, then I snap back. Then you stomp around and sulk a while and I pick at the issue until you explode. Then we both yell until I cry. Then you storm off and we try to give it time. We're usually both totally pissed off at that point."
If you don't already know your typical conflict patterns it can be helpful to draw them out like a map. Name each stop on your train track with a behavior one of you might take. You might label, raised voice, stomped feet, sarcastic comment, attempted apologies, blame, name-calling, and so on. Try to be as objective as possible as you name each stop.
Imagine your conflict is a train speeding down that track. Notice (if your conflict is like anyone else's) how it picks up speed at each stop. Now imagine what might happen if you stopped the train before continuing to the known next stop. What might happen if you slow it down or stop the train completely?
In order to stop making the conflict worse, we have to identify our own contributions to the conflict pattern, imagine a different path or outcome, and start aligning our behaviors to the new path. I'll go into each of these more below:
IDENTIFYING YOUR CONTRIBUTION
Once you name the behaviors you can easily identify your contributions to the pattern. When you start seeing yourself do these in real time try to slow down and be more intentional with your words and actions.
Visualize the consequences of giving in to your destructive or impulsive urges in conflict. The clearer you can be about the unwanted results of your own contributions to the conflict the less likely you will be to repeat them.
When those urges arise try to sit with them and just observe your behavior. Notice what happens in your body and where you find resolution or lodge resentment. You can add this to your train map for deeper awareness.
Be sure to notice what helps you release the tension or choose more peaceful responses. That information can help you re-connect with yourself and stay grounded in future tough conversations.
You cannot change your partner's behavior, but you can shift yours. Instead of defaulting to your usual pattern, try to slow your pace to create breathing room for new results.
IMAGINE A DIFFERENT PATH
Focus on the consequences of continuing to fight this way. Notice the consequences of attacking back. Recognize that each attack or defense you contribute continues the stuck pattern you say you want to shift. Once again, you cannot change your partner's behavior, but you can shift yours.
Reflect on the values you hold dear personally (you can download a values self-check here). Ask how the stuck conflict pattern aligns with your values. Notice which values are out of alignment with this pattern.
Reflect on your desired outcome for the conflict, how does your pattern align with the outcome? How could your behavior better align with what you really want?
Imagine instead of attacking and defending in the ways you have in the past, you interact in better alignment with your values. Imagine yourself more courageously acting in alignment with the values you hold and the outcomes you desire.
Imagine yourself feeling proud you changed your contribution to the conflict pattern. Envision you and your partner more peacefully ending the conflict cycle.
ALIGN YOUR BEHAVIORS WITH INTENTION
If you haven't had a different kind of conflict in a while (or ever) it can be really challenging to change the way you engage in it. Visualize the positive consequences of riding out your defensive or attacking urges.
Create a vision of yourself responding in a way that leaves you feeling confident (not righteous), understood, and connected to your partner. Imagine what you might say to end the conflict with grace and care.
Start by rehearsing a new ending to your conflicts in your head. Here are a couple phrases to try:
- "I hate fighting the way we have in the past. I want to have a different kind of conversation with you."
- "I want to be more intentional in conflicts with you. Let me take a break to think this through and come back to it in ten minutes when I have a cool head."
- "I really care about you and us and I'm confused and overwhelmed in this conversation right now. Let me take a minute to think."
- "I don't like the way we fight and I don't want to keep fighting this way."
- "I feel sad/afraid/lonely/confused and want to feel more sure/confident/connected/peaceful."
- "I love you and feel like we're starting our usual conflict pattern. I don't want to fight like that anymore."
- "I think I'm heading to a negative/unkind/defensive place in this conversation. Let me take a lap around the block to calm down and get in a better headspace."
Practice stepping back instead of into or against your partner's aggression in the conflict to realign with your values and desired outcome. How does this impact the result of your conflict?
You can interrupt stuck conflict cycles, but it takes awareness, intention, and courage. The more you become aware of the steps in your conflict pattern (yes, actually write or draw them out) the better equipped you will be to interrupt them. And the clearer you are about the behaviors you'd like to choose instead of attacking or defending the more likely you'll employ more caring values-based actions.