Anatomy of a Conflict
Helping Couples to End Repetitive Fights
Bonnie Weiss, LCSW
Jane says, “It feels like we have the same fight over and over again”
John agrees, ”It seems like we are always in the middle of a conflict. It never gets resolved. We can never start fresh.”
This is what I hear from many couples who feel that their relationships are draining rather than the haven they once were.
Why does this happen? Why are so many people disappointed with their ability to create relationships that are safe and affirming?
We can shed some light on this by understanding that we are each composed of many parts or sub-personalities, such as a protector, hurt child, rational distancer, spiteful kid. Each part has its own beliefs and motivations. Some are open and vulnerable and willing to love, especially when they are engaged in the initial phases of a relationship. Others are protective and scared of intimacy and contact. These are often evoked by the complexities of our lives today.
It is helpful for couples to track the repetitive sequences of their fights. When Jane is judgmental, John’s protector gets defensive and attacks. She responds with an offensive maneuver from her own angry protector. He withdraws and feels angry, alone and depressed. She feels hurt, alone and hopeless. Each of them has a part that just wants to be loved and seen as good. Each has parts that fiercely protect their vulnerabilities.
In my work with couples, we write these parts out on sheets of paper and lay then down in front of each person as we dissect the fight. People are amazed to see that they can so clearly recognize these different parts as individual sub-personalities in themselves and their partner. They also see that many of their parts are similar.
The Reconciliation Process
I recommend that couples talk about this process when not in the heat of battle. Agree to do some work to jointly explore the places where you get stuck and frustrated.
- Write out your view of the most frequent fight sequence, identifying each part that speaks and what part it triggers in your partner.
- Name your own parts. You can use categorical names like Protector, Vulnerable Child, Judge, Rationalizer, or cute and funny ones like Demon Sniper, Supreme Being, Garbage Collector.
- Next write out what each part wants for you, and how it goes about getting what it wants. As dark as they sometimes seem, each part is trying to do something positive for you. This might look like: “Protector: Wants to protect me from being shamed. Strategy: Attacks first.” Of Hurt Child wants love and sympathy. Strategy: Make partner feel guilty.
- Set aside some quiet time and exchange lists.
- Before reading your partner’s list, take a moment to find a place inside of yourself where you feel compassion for your partner. You might remember that soft spot you once had for him/her and a tender moment you once shared. Hold an image from that loving time and breath it into your heart for a minute or two.
- Now read your partner’s list and try to understand their parts with an attitude of caring, even if you don’t agree with their perceptions.
- Discuss the process with your partner.
When the fighting sequences are seen as repetitive interactions between these different parts all trying their best to do their job for the person, it is possible to view your partner’s strain and struggle with more compassion. A melting of the partitions begins and understanding and connection can follow.