September 2016: Couples and Conflict

Couples in counselling will often ask me if I think their relationship is a “good one”. Typically, this is because they are experiencing difficulty in some area (or many) in the relationship and they are concerned about whether or not they will make it through the messy bits of life together.

Conflict is common when you put any two adults together in close quarters—we all know that—but how much conflict is “normal” and how do people find a way through the conflict to a stable, loving, long-term relationship (assuming that’s the goal)? The answer lies perhaps not with how much conflict there is, but about what the conflict is creating or costing. That is, what is occurring as a result of the conflict or arguments and how is that affecting the relationship?

In some relationships yelling and passionate arguing is stress reducing; it clears the air and the make-up sex that results is perceived as being worth the drama. For others, yelling is overwhelming and abusive and they can’t stand to listen to it. So they retreat from the stress. Both of these are typical responses and are well within the typical range of conflict patterns and interactions for couples.

Creating distance is one of things humans do when they are scared, angry, and feeling vulnerable—it’s part of a powerful, protective mechanism that the limbic system in your brain employs to keep you safe and alive. Any threat, whether psychological, emotional, or physical, real or perceived as real, activates the flight-fight-freeze response, which often perfectly mirrors what is happening during the conflict. People may leave the room (or the marriage), stay and fight through it long after they should have stopped, or they might just shut down and refuse to engage any longer with their partner.

When the limbic system is firing up, the pre-frontal cortex (the reasoning, prioritizing, and analyzing part of your brain) is less likely to function well. After all, when a grizzly bear is in your campsite, you don’t need to consider how many reside in Northern Canada and how closely the bear’s size matches the standards for grizzly bear weight. You just need to run away, fight it off, or play dead. Your brain zeroes into your survival in that moment.

In the same way, if we are threatened, whether or not the threat is real or perceived, our brain prepares us to fight, flee, or play dead (unresponsive). This is why conversations can get heated and out-of-control so easily and why we then say things we don’t really mean. This is also why some people suddenly refuse to say anything more in the middle of a fight; they shut down to stop the threat from overwhelming them. Some people run and hide.

When engaged in conflict, it is difficult to stay calm and think clearly and rationally. Not surprisingly, this is the time of heated debate when the majority of relational wounding and damage occurs. And it can be difficult to begin the process of making things right again. Some people are naturally more comfortable with moving toward resolution and repair; others will find it difficult.

Every couple is different in their approach to resolving conflict, but there are a few common missteps in the “dance”. After the immediate conflict ends, there can be a distancing-pursuing dynamic wherein one person steps closer to the other to mend the breach, only to find that the other person is not ready or willing and is actively moving further away. The greater the pressure of the pursuit, the farther the distancing partner retreats.

Another common dance is one in which a partner has been assigned the unstated but very real responsibility to initiate the repair process. This person often resents this task; they wait for the other partner to address the emotional turmoil as a sign of caring, but it doesn’t come through or come fast enough. This dance often results in silencing or stonewalling and there is yet more negativity added to the original conflict.

Unresolved conflict can also lead to another dance, wherein neither partner knows how to begin to walk and talk together anymore nor do they necessarily want to keep trying. It all just feels too exhausting and, besides, there’s a sense that there’s probably no point to yet another discussion (fight) about the conflict. This can be a very powerful and destructive dynamic that is hard to overcome.

But, there are solutions to managing conflict, some of which will apply to your situation and others that will not. What are some ideas around how to work through conflict so that it doesn’t become too damaging or divisive? Here are a few for you to consider.

  • Remember that this is really about that. Figure out what the “that” is. Example: Is the missed chore the real problem or is it that one person thinks the other doesn’t care?
  • Turn toward your partner as soon as possible to attempt repairs. Consider the best time and place and check in with your motives, blind spots, sensitivities, and biases.
  • Solve the solvable problems and manage the perpetual problems.
  • Maintain the belief that your partner is not intentionally trying to make you miserable and that they want the best for you and the relationship.
  • Figure out your views and positions about important subjects together—finances, parenting, education, and life goals—before they become problems.
  • Prioritize your partner over every other relationship—including your children, friends, boss, and family of origin.
  • Compromise on some things that aren’t affecting your core values and beliefs. Sometimes choose your relationship over your need to be right.
  • Not everything that can be said should be said. Be honest, but speak with wisdom, sensitivity, and compassion.
  • Balance the giving and receiving of resources, including available time, money, energy, skills.
  • Share the responsibility for relationship-building.
  • Practice managing conflict. Not everyone grew up seeing how conflict can be expressed and worked through in a healthy and helpful way. Extend some grace to each other as you figure it out.
  • Strive to be humble, quick to forgive, open with needs and vulnerability, protective of the other, generous with praise, and stingy with criticism.
  • Remember that you have what it takes to figure this out…but even if you don’t there are professionals, such as counsellors, who can help with skill building, mediation, and support.

Peace to you and your household,

Shari van Spronsen


Unfortunately, some relationships escalate past the point of conflict and become abusive. If this is the case for you, then please seek refuge and safety first, before anything else. There are transition houses for men and women who are experiencing violence and abuse of any kind and counsellors and social work agencies can assist you in the process of figuring out what to do.

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