4 Pitfalls of High Conflict Communication in a Relationship
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“Arguing with you is like getting arrested. Everything I say, can and will be used against me. It doesn’t matter what I say or do, you are always so negative, or critical, or judgmental, or pessimistic!”
Have you ever thought or felt like this? Or has your spouse ever complained about you in a similar fashion? Moment of truth: as a couples’ therapist, as an observer of someone else’s relationship, these types of statements are so darn difficult to objectively analyze and give proper feedback on.
A difference of opinion or personal attack
And this is why: Is it truly the sender of the message that’s “always negative, critical, judgmental, or pessimistic?”
Has the receiver been exposed to so many of these messages in his or her upbringing that they have developed a sensitivity to anything that may come across as a difference of opinion or constructive criticism and will often perceive it as a personal attack?
Or is it actually a little bit of both? I am sure you’ve heard we subconsciously gravitate to the types of people we are used to, even though they may not lead us to healthy relationships.
Breaking the vicious, unhealthy cycle
For example, if we grew up with critical parents, we will gravitate towards critical partners. But then we will perceive all of their feedback as negative and get really upset when they criticize us. It can truly be a vicious, unhealthy cycle!
Understanding this dynamic in your relationship is extremely important. You almost cannot move forward until you both understand your unique pattern of interaction. And more importantly, you make a decision to not settle for a high conflict relationship.
Here are 5 dangers of just accepting lots of conflict in your relationship
1. It significantly increases the chances of a break-up or divorce
Research studies and many therapy books have reached the same conclusion.
Divorcing or chronically unhappy couples displayed more negative communication and more negative emotion as measured by the daily ratio of positive to negative interactions
with a majority of negative communication behaviors.
These telling each other what they are doing wrong, complaining, criticizing, blaming, talking down, and just generally not making the other person feel good.
They had a lot fewer positive communication behaviors such as complimenting, telling each other what they are doing right, agreeing, laughing, using humor, smiling, and just simply saying “please” and “thank you.”
2. It passes on the heartache and the dysfunction to your children
Communication is a very complex mental, emotional, and interactive process that starts at birth and continues throughout our lifetime, constantly changing and evolving with each interaction to follow (with our parents, teachers, mentors, friends, spouses, supervisors, co-workers, and customers).
Communication is more than just a skill; it’s a multigenerational process that gets passed on from grandparents to parents, to children, and future generations.
Disagreeing couples bring their own multigenerational baggage and when they interact, they create a unique, signature way of engaging and communicating with one another. They often recreate the same patterns, functional and dysfunctional, that they witnessed growing up.
The interesting thing is that they don’t recognize where their manner of communication is coming from; they just easily blame and put the focus on the other one: “My partner is so frustrating. I just can’t help it, but be sarcastic and negative.”
Your kids will witness your modeled style of communication, will repeat it, not only with you (which is highly frustrating) but also in their own relationships.
Also watch: What Is a Relationship Conflict?
3. There’s no productive problem-solving happening
It’s just a circular, energy draining, an unproductive pile of crap interaction that makes you both feel worse.
Conflicting couples are often caught up in a cycle of mutual slander, opposition, and feelings of being trapped.
They focus on their differences, instead of downplaying them. More importantly, they view these differences as stable, unwavering, and blameworthy failings in their partner.
These couples have a limited ability to problem solve and work together as a team. They usually express anger rather than expressing feelings of hurt (aggressive communicators). Or they will withdraw rather than express their disappointment in their partner (passive communicators).
This often leads to strong emotional reactions that short-circuit the ability to identify and respond effectively to the source of distress. Furthermore, the reaction to the problem becomes a source of difficulty in its own right leading to a vicious cycle of increasingly inflexible difficulties over time.
One of my clients who was very frustrated with her spouse, asked me this question once: “Which one is worse, when your spouse does something stupid or when he acts like a jerk?”I can’t say that question hadn’t crossed my mind before, so I was kind of ready with my own answer. I replied: “Honestly, they are both annoying, but I seem to get over the first one faster.
When he is a jerk, I seem to internalize his message and his cruel demeanor, and replay his mean answers over and over in my head. Then I generalize them to other scenarios and the next thing I know, I have a whole movie in my head about how much he hates me, and how much I hate him.”
4. It sets you up for more future failed discussions
The biggest danger of creating this pattern is that, in the end, time after time, we don’t remember the logistics or the details of a particular fight, but we remember the powerful feelings of being hurt by the other person. We will continue to accumulate all of these feelings.
At some point, these feelings turn into expectations. We expect anything that the other person does to be hurtful, frustrating, annoying, stupid, irresponsible, mean, uncaring, etc.
You can get creative and fill in the blanks, but it’s definitely negative. Next time it happens, we anticipate the feeling before we even process the facts. Our skin crawls with the anticipation of that negative feeling.
5. We see it and feel it coming our way
We shut down before we even figure out if the other person is right or wrong, so there is not even a chance of a proper discussion because we are already pissed off before we even start talking.
The next thing we know, we are walking and stomping around the house being angry at each other without really knowing what we are angry about.
There’s absolutely nothing good about a high-conflict relationship (maybe the make-up sex, but that’s not what most couples report). A relationship is supposed to be a source of support, comfort, building each other up, problem-solving, and most of all growth. vicious, unhealthy cycle
It may not be warm and fuzzy all the time, but it should be most of the times; if that’s not possible, at least choose neutral ground. That’s a good starting point!
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