Reduce Conflict by Embracing It
When I ask couples what brought them to therapy during their first session, they often say they’re seeking therapy due to ongoing conflict. Ironically, couples with the most conflict can often be the most conflict-avoidant. Approaching relationships with the idea that “healthiness” equals “no conflict” sets us up for disappointment, and contributes to ineffective communication strategies.
Especially if we grow up in a household with frequent arguing, we tend to avoid conflict at all costs. We associate conflict with yelling, insults, maybe even violence. This upbringing can cause us to shy away from voicing our true thoughts for fear of making things worse. Therefore, when a partner annoys us or hurts our feelings, we tend to keep it to ourselves.
Conflict is easily cast into a binary of “right” or “wrong,” with partners feeling like the “right” thing to say prevents conflict, and the “wrong” thing causes it. The trouble with this approach is that it assumes a conflict-free relationship is possible. The reality is that relationships always have conflict, and feeling disappointment is part of being human. None of us is perfect, and no matter how hard we try, eventually we'll be disappoint someone we love. Our job becomes accepting conflict as part of a healthy relationship, and embracing it, rather than avoiding it entirely.
I often remind couples that conflict is unavoidable. Our only choice is whether to address it in the moment when its smaller, or whether we push it down, hiding it until it grows into something much bigger - where suddenly a request to change the channel becomes an existential threat because it spirals into an argument about one partner feeling constantly dismissed by the other.
Conflict-avoidance can have many origins. Sometimes it results from abandonment. Sometimes it’s lack of parental attunement - your parents may have been too preoccupied with their own conflicts to meet your needs, so you learned to suppress them. However it began, working with a therapist can help you begin to identify your emotional needs, so that you are better able to express them to your partner.
Couples therapy can help provide the space to experience conflict safely, so that you gain confidence in managing it in your relationships.
They are gone, and yet we remain. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. What now? How do I move forward in my life without feeling selfish, hopeless, or stuck? What do I do?
When dealing with the loss of a loved one, you don’t need to be alone during your grieving process. Develop your support network, and if needed find a therapist.
A suggestion I have for those suffering from a loss, is a process I like to call Active and Mindful Grieving. This technique was inspired from an Amish tradition I learned about during a time when I lost someone in my life. This tool is best used after the initial shock of the loss.
The process starts with finding a jar or something similar that is meaningful to you. Next, find and place pebbles or stones in your vessel. Now you have your grieving tools. Each day that goes by, designate a time to grieve. Find a peaceful place and take a stone from your jar. Apply meaning to this stone. This could include something you want your lost one to know, something you are upset about, something that you cherished, something you want to let go of, something you want to forgive the other for, etc. Each stone will represent a different aspect of your loss.
Through designating a time each day for your loved one, you are being mindful of your loss. You are not hiding from the pain, anger, or any other feelings you might experience. You are being mindful of your experience. Each day that goes by, you are bringing awareness toward (and not running from) your loss. Through active grieving, unexpected feelings are less likely to blindside you. You are allowing yourself time to grieve and also honor your loved one daily. This can alleviate the feelings we have as we try and pursuit our day-to-day activities.
The designated time you have set out each day is for you and your loss. The rest of the day is for you.
As each day passes, you will notice the stones having a smaller presence in your vessel. In some cases, you might need to add more stones, and that’s okay. In other cases, you might find that you didn’t need every stone, and that is okay too. What’s important is that you are giving yourself time each day to be mindful of and applying meaning to your loss.
The grieving process has 5 stages. Please click here to learn more about them.
It is important to note that these stages are not linear and can resurface. The grieving process does not have a finish line; rather it is a process that allows you to make meaning of your loss, and it’s impact on you can become a source of strength, rather than deterioration.
Co-dependency is a common issue brought into session, from couples and individuals struggling in their relationships. But what do I mean when I say “codependent?” Many people imagine a couple that can’t stand to be apart from one another. However a simpler definition could be “an attempt to manage the emotional state of one’s partner”. This can take many different forms, even somethings as innocuous as asking your partner permission before doing something.
I can hear you already: “But asking permission is part of being a thoughtful partner, how is this a problem?” Inadvertently, you cede all the decision making power to your partner. Further, your partner may feel pressure to say “Yes that’s ok” because they fear looking uptight if they say “no.” Finally, if your partner does say no, you may begin to feel resentment toward them.
A recent example was with Anjali, who had been dating her boyfriend for a few months. She loves surfing, while her boyfriend recently started learning.
“Well obviously I’m going to help him, but at some point I’ll want to catch bigger waves; so I’m trying to figure out the best way to ask without him getting upset. I was thinking maybe something like “Hey, would it be ok with you if later on I paddle out further...just so I can do something less beginner?””
I asked her if she thought there was anything wrong with her desire to catch bigger waves, more appropriate for her skill level. “Well, no” she responded with some surprise.
“So if he says “no” what are you going to do?”
“I didn’t think about that…I guess I would have to stay closer to the shore with him even though it’s going to be boring.”
“How long do you want to date someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with you doing something that you know isn’t wrong - like catching these bigger waves?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it like that…I guess I wouldn’t really want to be in a relationship like that long term.”
By asking permission, Anjali allows her boyfriend to decide how she spends her time. He may feel threatened by her skill level and worry that she would rather date a better surfer, and subconsciously want to limit her exposure to such people. Rather than work through these feelings on his own, he can simply say “no” and avoid the emotional work. Anjali now has two choices: either do it anyway, which is in direct contradiction to his request, or repress her own desire to surf bigger waves even though she knows there is nothing wrong with it, causing resentment.
Why is this behavior codependent? Because inadvertently, Anjali is saying to her boyfriend “I know that my desire to surf independently might bother you, so instead asking you to work through it, I will sacrifice something important to me so that you aren’t inconvenienced.”
How did we conclude our session? I reminded Anjali that dating is a fact finding mission, and sometimes we need to create experiments to test whether the person we are dating can be the partner we want. In this case, Anjali wants someone who accepts her skill level at surfing and doesn’t mind when she wants to challenge herself, even if it means he will be left to practice on his own temporarily.
We decided a better way to approach the situation might look like this: “Hey I’m going to surf with you and help you out, and I want to catch some bigger waves too. Which works better for you, me going out at the beginning of the day so you can warm up on your own, or me going out later after you’re already warmed up?” We also decided that if her boyfriend got upset at her question, maybe she should reconsider whether she wanted to continue dating him.
So how else can we validate our partners without reverting to asking permission?
“Is it ok if I go to this networking thing after the conference?”
“Hey is it cool if I plan a weekend trip with my friends?”
“Hey could I take this new job even if it’s further away?”
These are just some simple suggestions for improving communication in your relationships, whether with family, friends, or even co workers. If you feel like your relationships might benefit from this type of reframe, book a free consultation with Pathwork Therapy today!
Like any field that spent decades trying to justify its existence, psychology is full of ambitious, overly-academic language - fantastic for sounding intellectual at parties but unhelpful in fostering an understanding of psychological processes with clients. Recently, an example I've encountered is the defense mechanism “projective identification.” I described this concept to a friend who is not in mental health, who after digesting my mini-lecture replied, “this just sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I was grateful for this layman’s definition and wanted to discuss its role in relationship dynamics, as I see it frequently in couples counseling.
Most of us are somewhat familiar with the idea of “projection,” wherein we take something we don’t like about ourselves and project it onto our partner. An example might be the man who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating and texting men on the side. However in counseling we later discover that he is, in fact, that one who is cheating.
Projective identification is an extension of this concept, only it begins to ensnare the partner unsuspectingly. Let’s say in our example that our male client becomes so accusatory and unbearable that the female half of the couple does seek romantic attention from someone else. When our male client finds out, he can justify his accusations saying “See! I knew you were going to cheat!”
To over-simplify its definition, projective identification is a process in which one partner induces the other into acting out the projection. A more common and less extreme version of this dynamic can originate with an anxious attachment style. Perhaps a couple, Simon and Ian, are spending the weekend together. Simon notices that Ian has been on his phone frequently throughout the day and resents that fact that Ian is not paying more attention to him. The idea of being mad at his partner is unpleasant, so Simon rids himself of the feeling by deciding that Ian is actually the one mad at him. It should be noted that this process occurs subconsciously.
Simon then says to Ian, “Hey what’s wrong, you aren’t talking to me.” Ian replies, “Oh, nothing’s wrong, I’m just reading an article I really like.” Suppose Simon has an anxious attachment style, which unhelpfully tells him “if my partner isn’t paying attention to me all the time, they hate me.” Ian’s answer is not sufficient to ease Simon’s discomfort, so Simon presses him, “No, really what’s wrong, I can tell you’re mad at me.” Ian again repeats that he is simply reading the news online. Simon pushes the issue, and feeling irritated, Ian snaps back “Nothing is wrong! Geez, just let me read something for a second!” Simon, responding to hostility says, “see, you’re yelling at me, I knew you were mad at me.” Projective identification has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Simon.
In this example, we can see how a defense mechanism, an attachment style, and a subconscious belief all combine to create a breakdown in communication between partners. The good news is that there are therapeutic methods to address each of these components, including cognitive behavioral therapy and object relations/self psychology. If you find that this dynamic is hindering your relationship from growing further, consider individual or couples counseling. Use the contact information below to set up a consultation today!
Ben Black, LCSW