Couples Conflict. I’m guessing right about now, after goodness knows how many weeks we’ve been in Covid-19 Lockdown, this is a term many households are familiar with.

So, how do we deal with it?

Below are a few top line techniques I employ in my Couples Counselling sessions. Obviously, during face-to-face or virtual confidential counselling, we dig deeper, but this is a guideline of where we begin.

Couples Conflict – Dealing with Differences

Conflict typically comes about because we view situations differently and can’t always agree on ways to resolve them. How couples deal with their differences is generally the key to what the issues actually are.

The first and most important thing to do is recognise and acknowledge the difference or differences we each have. Engaging with differences in this manner means that equal rights are being recognised and offered to each individual within the couple.

Remember, difference is the way of the world these days and as society, we are encouraged to embrace our differences. Yet, unless this rhythm is acknowledged and permitted, conversation goes nowhere and couples conflict is rarely resolved. If difference remains unacknowledged and disrespected couples conflict simply cannot be dealt with.

Don’t Try To Change Each Other

In my couples conflict counselling, I frequently see couples trying to change the differences inside the relationship or attempting to influence or change each other. This is a sure-fire way of turning our differences into conflict.

Couples conflict occurs because of how the couple deals with difference and not actually the difference itself. How we as individuals interact within our relationships is a naturally instinctive way of getting what we need. However, it’s wise to remember that we don’t always get what we want or need in life (and sometimes that can be a positive thing, as we can grow from that).

It is also important to remember that it is these differences that may have been part of the reason you were attracted to each other to begin with. So, we need to work out ways to get you both back to the point where you admired and respected those differences, not saw them as a flaw or failure within your relationship.

Couples Conflict and Core Needs, Values and Compatibility

One of the goals of couples therapy is to uncover where there is compatibility between the individuals in the partnership. What are the individual core needs?

This is no easy task, as some individuals may not know what their core needs are. We can however delve into this and uncover them.

We also need to identify what the shared core needs are? Again, this can be a tough one, as most couples don’t discuss these, or indeed even know what they are. We will explore these together, bring them to the surface and make them easy for each individual in the relationship to identify, respect and reach these needs in a non-confrontational manner.

Questions we may ask include, “what are the values I hold?” “What values does my partner hold?” “What shared values do we have?”. Again, these are things are that typically not discussed in many relationships.

In order for couples conflict to be avoided, it’s important to remember that core needs and core values differ from individual to individual. Needs can be compromised, and an individual can be OK about that. However, core values, if compromised, can be damaging to the individual and ultimately the couple.

Couples Conflict – Collaboration to Resolve Contact

In order for couples conflict to be resolved, we need to establish equality within the relationship. There cannot be collaborative engagement of needs while there is a hierarchy. When there is a hierarchy contact and connection are thrown off kilter. Some of the things we look out for in couples counselling include:

  1. Characterisation of other
    When one or both begin to characterise the other in the conversation, they are out of their jurisdiction. Furthermore, if you talk about the other, you rarely actually discuss the issues at hand, which hinders resolution of conflict.
  2. Commenting or being critical of others’ point of view
    This isn’t supportive or helpful to resolving couples conflict. In couples counselling sessions, we look at ways to avoid this and approach a different point of view from a place of acknowledgment and respect, with the aim for peaceful resolution.
  3. Correction of others’ point of view
    This also brings trouble. If someone has a different point of view to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are right and they are wrong, or vice versa. Correction of anothers’ point of view can also bring with it more conflict, as people will either shut up or argue.
  4. Prologues and epilogues
    Prologue includes characterisation of another person (see point 1). While it is usually well intended, it sets the stage to force the other person to agree. Epilogue is what we view as the desired outcome. This may differ for each individual in the couple. Prologue and epilogue may be a hindrance for any possibility of a reasonable response and discussion, so we need to delve deeper into these and work out respectful and reasonable outcomes.
Couple’s Conflict – The Therapist’s Task

As a therapist, it is my role to support different styles of contact, allowing for softening, opening and compassion, along with leaning into self and each other. The pathway for collaboration can be paved by staying with the reality and experience of each; by acknowledging and allowing difference to stand and by ensuring each person has ‘airtime’, as well as listening time.

For me, it’s important to remember not to get into content and story – this simply distracts from the process of what’s really happening. To remain aware that each individual has to be honest about self – not about other – is imperative. It matters not, to me, if the experience in the contact is sweet or sour. What is important is staying with what ‘is’ and allow unfolding into the space.

It’s my task to have an effective ‘how’ to support couples in the way couples deal with their differences and recognise that while boundaries separate us, they can also connect us.

The Gestalt collaborative model looks at the whole system and has potential to open up many possibilities.

Remember – each individual is 100 percent responsible for their contribution to the co-creation.

Lesley McPherson studied couples counselling with Bob and Rita Resnick from Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles.

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