Seven Strategies for High Conflict Couples
How to De-escalate and Resolve Issues
Disagreements are bound to happen in relationships. Some couples move through arguments quickly and easily while others might have loud, long and languishing disagreements. Alan Fruzzetti, Ph.D. offers a systematic and effective process for de-escalating and resolving conflicts in his book “The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation”. Below are some helpful ideas largely taken from his approach.
When to Engage
Usually we value closeness, attention, and understanding of each other’s needs and perspectives in relationships. When we are feeling positive, we can usually communicate in ways that foster these values. When we are highly emotional however- angry, sad, frustrated, and/or hurt- we often then don't express ourselves in the same ways that foster those qualities of closeness and understanding. Losing our emotional balance often affects our ability to think clearly. We also tend to make assumptions and become judgmental in our thoughts and words. We don’t listen very well to a partner and really hear what they have to say as we are clouded by intense emotions. This is thus generally not the ideal time to try to resolve a disagreement. Waiting until we calm down is often a better strategy if we want positive and harmonious results to the conversation.
If you think of yourself on an emotional scale, from zero (calm) to ten (explosive), when you are at a level four or above, then you are likely not able to follow your optimal communication style. Ideally it is best to reduce the intensity of your emotions to a three or lower before beginning or continuing the conversation. One helpful strategy for lowering the intensity you are experiencing is to notice your emotions and where you feel the intensity in your body. You might feel a tight chest, clenched hands, strained breathing, and/ or tense back for example. Simply noticing these sensations can help to reduce the intensity of your experience. Some people prefer to go for a walk around the block or a run to “burn it off”. Once you have calmed down to a three or lower, you will likely find that you are less likely to say something that you later regret and more likely to reflect the warmth and caring you ultimately feel for your partner in your communication.
Think Before You Speak
It is best to compose what to say rather than blurting it out. Once it is said, you can apologize but it is never erased. Before speaking, take a moment to reflect on whether what you want to say is likely to make things better or worse. Will the words you want to use actually get you what you want in the long term? Try to describe the situation and your reaction to it without judgment such as what is “wrong” or “bad” or “must stop or change”.
Judgments tend to layer emotions on top of each other so that, for example, what might start out as feeling alone (“I miss spending time with you”) can actually be expressed as anger (“You don’t care about me”) . Even self-judgment can transform regret (“I wish I had come home early to be with you”) into something less productive (“I am a horrible partner and you should break up with me”). These judgments create larger and more destructive emotions that are harder to hear and untangle, often creating even more judgments for both parties. If you notice you are angry, for example, reflect on what is underneath the anger. Look for the judgment behind the anger and describe the situation and the underlying emotion.
Assumptions also can wreak havoc on our interactions. Notice if there are any assumptions in what you heard your partner say or saw them do or even what they did not do. When you speak with your partner, take responsibility for your assumptions so that they can clarify the meaning and intention of anything that they said or did. This way you can hopefully prevent the discussion from escalating based on an incorrect assumption.
The best way to create a new habit is to practice it. Start to notice when you make judgments. Mindfulness (purposely bringing your attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment) can help. Practice noticing what you experience during daily activities such as taking a shower, eating or breathing. Pay attention to your five senses and your reaction to the moment. If you notice yourself making judgments, practice reframing the moment without them. You may notice for example that your breathing is slow or fast or shallow or deep. Refrain from judging your breathing as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, just be with it. You can reflect on whether you like your breathing pattern or not and make changes if you want. Practice observing and describing. This skill will help you in more charged situations.
Let your partner know how they impact you: in all ways, not just negatively. Follow the pattern of “I feel… when you…”. Take responsibility for your emotions. Rather than “You always make me feel stupid”, take out the “always” and frame a particular instance of “I felt stupid/ judged when you told me I was wrong.” Make sure you also practice telling your partner when you feel cared for, loved, and appreciated.
Repair the Connection
When a partner tells you how they felt, let them know that you understand how they felt. Don’t just be a parrot. Connect with what they say. Then let them know that it makes sense that they felt that way. This does not mean that you have to agree with their perspective, but that you understand that this was how they experienced it. Emotional reactions are never wrong. They may not reflect how you would have experienced that same situation, however you are a different person with different triggers and histories. Then let them know what you learned from their risk of telling you and how you will do your best to respect their experience moving forward.
Finally, start to notice your triggers and catch them before they escalate. Remember your goals in your relationship and “show up ready to play, not to win”. These conversations are really hard, however avoiding them does not help and usually makes things worse. Get to know the patterns of your conflicts and slow things down. Notice your own judgments, assumptions, reactions, and triggers. Ensure that you are at a three or below in the intensity scale so that you can bring your best and whole self to the table. Risk a little piece of your own vulnerability if it feels safe. Alan Fruzzetti’s book has some great practical advice, or seek help from a trained professional to gain insight and skills to manage your conflicts. Prevention and preparation are invaluable in managing high-conflict relationships so that everyone feels accepted, close and understood.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to www.goodforher.com