Conflict in a committed relationship is positive. It allows us to learn from one another and to work out the inevitable differences between us. But it must be done in a way that provides emotional safety in order to be effective.
Picture this: you come home from a stressful day at work and turn to your partner for comfort and reassurance. You begin describing a battle with your co-worker (that you lost) and before you can get all the words out of your mouth your soul mate interrupts you with… unwanted advice! Yes, instead of words of comfort, you hear advice, a critique of your behavior, and, worst of all, it sounds like he’s not even on your side!
Whether we realize it or not, we often say the wrong things or fail to listen in a way that makes it safe for our partners to open up. Since it’s a two-way street, we know that it works both ways, but usually we are more tuned in to the times that WE didn’t get our needs met. Most of us have a “blind spot” about the ways that we fail to meet our partner’s needs for emotional safety.
Universally, human beings seek to be understood. When we get it, the feeling is glorious. Finally! Someone understands and “gets” me. It is immensely healing and restorative simply to be listened to without judgment or criticism and with the full attention of a compassionate person.
Being listened to, REALLY listened to, is so powerful that people pay lots of money in order to have it – via therapists, coaches, and mentors. On the flip side, human beings also universally seek to avoid criticism. Our egos tend to weight negative feedback from those that really matter to us much more heavily than from others. Thus, our careless comments that smack of criticism are often experienced like little grenades in the emotional field of our partners. The reaction is typically to haul out all the old psychological defense mechanisms: launch a counter-attack, withdraw, or freeze up.
In the heat of the moment, we really don’t have a choice about those defensive reactions. Our brains have a built-in mechanism (called the amygdala) whose job is to scan the environment for danger. Unfortunately, it doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and a social threat. Many of the unconscious, careless things that we say and do with our partners are experienced by the brain as a threat, setting off defenses. Examples of how we set off our partners’ defense mechanisms include:
• Disagreeing and debating in a way that implies it’s personal (i.e., you’re wrong and I’m right!)
• “You” statements, especially when followed by negative feedback
• “No” when it isn’t softened with qualifiers
• “Telling” the other person how it is, rather than asking for their experience and really listening
• Raised voices, emotional outbursts
The problem with failing to create emotional safety together is twofold. First, once defenses are set off, emotions skyrocket and our ability to respond thoughtfully and compassionately goes dramatically down. This means negative conflict. When conflict escalates, we say things that can deeply wound and leave emotional scars that don’t fade. When negative, wounding conflict becomes a habit, overall satisfaction plummets.
This leads to the second major problem with lack of emotional safety: without it, we may move toward other connections and relationships that meet those needs. Over time, we may invest more heavily in other areas of life than we do in the primary relationship, putting a marriage or committed relationship at risk.
What can you do to create greater emotional safety in your love relationship? First, make a commitment to do so – say it verbally to your partner and ask for the same commitment in return. Second, learn how to really listen empty (minus judgment or preparing your rebuttal). Third, set aside regular, uninterrupted time just for sharing thoughts, life experiences, insights, and feelings. During that time, take turns listening and mirroring (reflecting back what you hear), and don’t offer feedback unless you are specifically asked for it.
Conflict is healthy in a relationship, provided it’s done with emotional safety. Learn how to disagree without making it personal, blaming, or attacking. How can you do that? Listen and reflect first, before you put your point of view on the table. Then ask if he’s ready to listen to your point of view. When he’s ready to listen, present your thoughts not as facts but as opinions and points of view with room to flex. This process stimulates healthy debate – it’s energizing, refreshing, and helps you grow as a couple if you do it lovingly.
When you find yourselves getting upset, take a break and get yourselves calm before your reactions go over the top. Come back together and start over from a calm place. Remember that listening means understanding, and from there we can solve most problems and re-connect from the heart.
Written originally for w2wlink.com by Nina Atwood.
Nina Atwood, M.Ed., LPC, is a licensed therapist, published author, and host of the hit Web site, Singlescoach®. Nina has been featured in national magazines, newspapers, on radio and television. She is the author of four self-help books, including her newest book, Temptations of the Single Girl: The Ten Dating Traps You Must Avoid. Listen live or via downloadable podcasts to "Love Strategies" with Nina weekly at www.blogtalkradio.com/nina-atwood. Nina is an award-winning CEO Coach for Vistage and does one-on-one coaching with key level executives.