5 Lessons I Learned from my Couples Counsellor about Conflict in Relationships
Counselling can be for everyone, it’s just that most people haven’t realized it yet.
When it comes to couples counselling in particular, that’s where I learned the most about myself and my partner. My couples therapist gave me the space and expert advice that enabled me to better understand my own personal needs and how I would like them to be met, as well as my partner’s needs and how they prefer to communicate. I found this to be the most helpful when it came to conflict.
Conflict is an inevitable part of all relationships, whether it’s familial, between friends, or with a romantic partner. So it makes sense to learn healthy ways to discuss and resolve issues. This is where couples therapy comes in and can be an invaluable process filled with the opportunity to learn and grow.
Here are my key takeaways from my experience with my couples counsellor:
Conflict doesn’t mean that the relationship is doomed.
I used to think that our frequent, quite nasty spats meant that we weren’t the right partners for one another. Or that perhaps all the fighting was due to a timing issue, as so many of my friends diagnosed it. But when we swallowed our pride and asked for help from a professional, we were welcomed with the most refreshing news: conflict does not mean that our relationship has failed or is heading in that direction. Quite the opposite, we were assured that conflict is a necessary process of reaching understanding with your partner. Provided we were fighting for the relationship, as opposed to fighting against each other to win, then it could all be considered positive progress.
Put simply, we learned that you can fight, but that there is a way to fight well. Fighting well involves focusing on tackling the problem that has come up between the two of you, rather than attacking the person we essentially want to reconnect with.
Conflict avoidance can destroy relationships.
In many instances it can feel like the easier option for both parties involved to tight lip, swallow your words, and move on. The problem with this approach is that the continuous withdrawal from communication can slowly start to erode the relationship. This happens from both sides. Firstly, the partner avoiding the conflict by not speaking their mind will inevitably start a war within themselves, which can break out at any given moment, often in the form of a venomous, verbal attack on their partners. Secondly, the partner on the other side of the communication withdrawal can feel their partner pulling away and start to feel unsafe in the relationship. It’s a lose-lose situation as communication is ultimately the keystone to a long-lasting and healthy relationship.
So don’t avoid the difficult conversations. Rather engage with one another and have the less palatable discussions, because ultimately, opening up and embracing vulnerability will draw you closer together.
My partner’s emotional processing may be different to mine.
I used to find it incredibly frustrating when my partner and I were in the middle of an argument, standing in the same room, fighting about the same thing, and yet we were experiencing entirely different truths. We were unable to get on the same page. It’s hard sometimes to understand how someone else can perceive the same situation so differently. Caught up in the moment of our own immediate experience, our partner’s reactions can often seem entirely disproportionate or their view on the problem at hand can seem like the polar opposite to what it is for us. Oftentimes, this comes down to different ways of processing.
Our couples counsellor drew our attention to the three main states that our nervous systems can be in: ventral vagal (feeling safe, connected, able to experience joy and happiness), sympathetic (fight or flight), or dorsal vagal (freeze). In a stressful situation, such as in an argument, each person has a window of tolerance where they can remain in the ventral vagal state. This window is different for everyone, but regardless, once their threshold has been reached, their nervous system will shift into either sympathetic or dorsal vagal state. This was helpful for us to know, because we were able to better understand each other’s reaction in the moment – whether to fight, run, or freeze – and once armed with that knowledge we could be more compassionate towards one another.
Once you understand the behavior and where it is coming from, you are able to refocus your attention on the problem. It becomes less about your partner’s reactions and more about finding a way to reach a common ground with tools and positive communication.
Mind reading is a myth.
As much as you may be convinced, without a doubt, that you know what your partner is thinking, I can promise you that you don’t. You may have an inkling, and every now and then you may be pretty spot on, but there is no such thing as reading minds. We obviously all know this on a literal level, but being reminded of the fact that I actually don’t know the whole story, until I ask, was an invaluable takeaway. So talk, ask them questions, listen to what they are saying, hear their story rather than coming up with your own uninformed version of events.
Everybody has unprocessed “stuff” they are both aware of and unaware of.
Our childhood experiences inform a lot of who we are and how we process and respond to the world. This also goes for our adult relationships. The relationships we had in childhood formed a template for us and impacts how we show up with other people today. It is common for us to have experiences as children that are left unprocessed resulting in unprocessed emotions, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and/or beliefs that have remained in the body. It’s often during conflict when we unintentionally trigger one another’s unprocessed emotions, thus exposing the little imperfections and insecurities we have suppressed over time. It’s scary to have someone you love bring out the darker sides of you, but it is in these moments of humanness that we are able to really connect.
I often felt like I had to behave perfectly, respond appropriately, dress the part, talk the talk, but here’s the best news: nobody is perfect! In fact, striving for perfection in a relationship has proven to be more detrimental than anything else.
That being said, it doesn’t mean we can’t ask for a little help to become the best versions of ourselves within our partnerships. Until we can find that 100% success guaranteed recipe for a perfect relationship, we’ll have to make do with what we do have – building our relationship skills, communicating effectively, engaging in activities that enhance our connection, and using couples therapy to tackle any of the big issues.