There’s nothing more heartbreaking or frustrating than listening to a friend talk about the latest fight they had with their lover or family member, when you hear an emergence of the same old patterns, the same old stories and the same habits. Those habits are slowly destroying the future of the relationship.
Conflict is necessary and inevitable, but not always necessarily bad. Conflict is often how we discover and process our differences. Because conflict can be any difference of opinion or desires, it is not always a ‘loud’ expression of discord. It’s how express conflict that makes all the difference as to whether it’s healthy or unhealthy.
In romantic situations, we’re often sold an idea of conflict merely being thinly veiled passion but despite promises of great makeup sex – conflict is much more than the flipside of our passion. Each of us will experience conflict with many different people in different ways throughout our lifetime. The key is to not become so habitual in the way we personally express conflict, that we are unable to learn and grow new, smarter ways of addressing conflict in our interpersonal relationships.
Most of us only have one, maybe two fight modes. If those fight modes are not constructive, then conflict is likely to be unhealthy, rather than something we can work through to achieve greater understanding, harmony and intimacy. If you can learn to evolve your fight modes over time, you can become a better communicator through conflict. You can grow from it. If you get stuck in an unconstructive fight mode, you might well be doing damage unwittingly.
Wondering what an unconstructive fight mode might be? Here are a few examples.
The Demand/Withdraw Cycle.
One partner (research says more often it will be a woman) demands change, discussion or resolution of an issue, while the other partner avoids or deflects. This cycle is a terrible way to fight because ultimately, nothing is able to be resolved. If one person is not participating in a conversation, it’s not really a fight. Quickly it becomes an attack. The danger is one person becoming dominant over the other because how they raise the issues (which may well be valid) is pushing the defensive boundaries of the other partner, thereby shutting down other forms of resolution or communication.
Carrying a Duffel Bag.
If you or your loved one’s fight mode includes frequently revisited previous conflicts, wrongs or mistakes – that’s a Duffel Bag fight mode. This person is cataloguing previous encounters and regularly unpacks them in any argument to back up their point. This is soul-destroying to live with. Are you carrying a duffel bag of things you’ve fought about but not resolved? Are you carrying a list of previous mistakes and not allowing your loved one a chance to move on or progress? Time to reset your fight modes before you destroy what’s left of your partner’s self-esteem or have yours destroyed.
The Roll Over.
Slightly different to the Demand/Withdraw (that one is really a team effort!), the Roll Over is the posture of someone who is already feeling defeated and prefers not to engage in the conflict at all. Whether you or your loved one is responding with this posture, it’s a fast track to misunderstanding and deep wounds on both sides. This can also be displayed as simply ignoring the issue.
If one partner believes there to be an issue but the other partner proactively pushes back or denies the issue. Usually this is associated with a putdown of the other person’s perception or security in the relationship and/or personal critique.
If you’re ever been on the receiving end of this one, it’s actually hard to keep up with where the emotional swing is at. At any point in the conflict, your loved ones attitude might be full of love and/or remorse only to swing back moments later. It creates total instability and undermines any trust.
The Here We Go Again.
The fight instigator usually has a regular trigger that causes a chain reaction. The chain reaction might also include some of the above, however usually the other partner can recognize similar patterns and language being used and therefore will either role play how they’ve previously temporarily resolved the conflict or shut down. Repeating temporary solutions only exacerbates and extends the duration of this unhealthy conflict.
The ‘I Am Right, Regardless’ Posture.
If either partner or loved one maintains this posture, you might as well call it quits now. There is little comeback for a relationship where one party cannot reasonably fathom the possibility that they may be wrong. Where one person assumes a superior position to the other from the outset, the resulting conversation or conflict cannot be resolved without an affliction to the personhood of one or the other.
And of course Flight Mode.
Avoidance at all costs, the truth is that this mode usually only occurs if there is some sort of identity wound or paradigm that prevents the person from being able to face (even terrified) conflict of any kind. This might be an habitual affliction or something that is a direct result of previous conflicts.
A constructive fight mode might be something like Respond Don’t React, Listen Then Reflect, or even Blurt Then Talk. If you can talk about your fight modes then you’ve begun a path to recovery and constructive behaviour. If your fight modes are unhealthy, you’ll be either reinforcing negative patterns for yourself or the other person.
Learn to talk about fighting.
‘It makes it hard to talk to you when you go into this ‘………..’ mode’ because it makes me feel like….
Here’s the rub: it doesn’t matter what you fight about. The way you fight is actually what’s depicting the health of your relationship and communication. You could fight about the smallest trivial things each day, but if your conflict process is actually helping you to learn about one another in constructive ways, it’s fine. Typically these relationships already have a high level of security.
Healthy conflict can be exhilarating because a passionate encounter with another person’s beliefs and/or values can create a sense of intimacy. Think about when someone has stood up to protect the rights of others in a public setting, or the resolution of a longstanding family conflict. These emotions play highly into our moral compass when dealing with conflict.
Often, it simply doesn’t occur to people to talk about how they fight. The focus becomes what they were fighting about instead of how they approach the disagreement. The key to successfully moving towards ‘as little as possible conflict in the healthiest possible way’ means maintaining an open-mindedness to trying new ways of resolving conflict. This is particularly something that parents should be mindful of as they navigate through complex teenage or young adult years. At that stage of life, young adults are learning conflict patterns they are likely to repeat throughout their lifetimes.
If you are stuck in any one of these or other similar patterns – it’s time to get help or get out. The truth is that many relationships cannot be resolved because the work required to change behaviour patterns are too engrained to be re-wired neurologically or through behaviour therapy without a large commitment from both parties.