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Rewiring Conflict

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Kevin grew up with parents that were constantly shouting and berating each other. He never witnessed an apology or an attempt to repair the relationship, and he learned that the best way to calm his own sense of panic when emotions were flying like daggers was to put on his headphones, close the door and shut everyone out completely. His partner, Ray, grew up in a home where loud, impassioned conversations were commonplace at the dinner table. Differences of opinion were voiced unabashedly, and members of the family often openly disagreed. Ultimately, most of these conversations led to greater understanding, and the family members had deep respect and sincere appreciation of one another. The two men had very different experiences with conflict as children, and so their strategies for how to deal with stressful emotions as adults is also very different. At the first inkling of an argument with Ray, Kevin quickly defaults into escape mode in order to short circuit a conflict which seems to him most certainly will end in violence. Ray will pursue him, hoping to resolve the issue at hand, and often ends up frustrated and confused about why Kevin won't try to sort things out with him.

Two vastly different strategies for handling conflict will often lead to a cycle of frustrating miscommunication that seems impossible to shift. When one person shuts down and refuses to continue the conversation, while the other is desperate to hash things out and come to an understanding, there may be an impasse. The one believes that conflict is ruinous to relationship, so best to avoid it at all costs, and thereby remain safe. The other sees that resolution can only be found by getting it all out there, expressing all of the feelings, at times even shouting and blaming and throwing things if that's what it takes to be heard. Each person may perceive his way of handling the situation as the only way forward, but both are painfully aware that nothing seems to be working. They may have a clear sense that they are not getting along and this familiar cycle keeps coming back around, but they have no idea how to shift things.

In Sue Johnson's book, "Hold on Tight," she writes about attachment styles. People can have very different approaches to intimacy, relationship, and conflict, depending on how the adults in their lives handled communication and conflict when they were children. Some of us tend to pull away, or be avoidant, when a relationship is stressful, while others will try to calm their relationship anxiety by persistently going after their partner until a connection is reestablished, sometimes to the point of throwing a tantrum. The strategies that worked for us as children to avoid or calm hurt feelings can be hard wired into our neural pathways. This can be like the experience of arriving at home in your car in a sort of autopilot mode, having no recollection of the drive there. We can default to a trancelike state in which our behavior does not seem like a choice, it just takes over and happens, the same way it has been happening since we were small. The problem is that our childhood coping strategies often don't work well in maintaining healthy adult relationships, and the good news is that we can learn to do things differently. We can rewire our brains by stepping back to notice what we are doing, and choosing to create new neural pathways by learning new behaviors and patterns of communication.

The first important step is to recognize the negative cycle as it is happening, in the moments when it begins to take over and hijack your ability to listen to one another. Reflect for a moment on how you handle conflict or feelings of disconnection with your partner. What happens when you are confronted by your partner about leaving dishes in the sink or showing up late? What do you do when you feel anxious about the state of the relationship? If you feel annoyed, do you pull away or snap at your partner? If your partner pulls away, how far do you go to try and re-engage them? Do you worry that if you share hurt feelings or anger that it will just escalate into a fight? Do you have effective ways to make up and talk about what happened after a fight? Can the two of you name to each other your part in the downward spiral? Once you start to recognize how you and your partner both play an integral role in an unhealthy pattern of communication, you can begin to catch yourselves while it is happening and stop it in its tracks. In this first step to changing things, the two of you name a common enemy, which is not each other, but the negative pattern of communication.

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