Disagreements are inevitable. At some point within our relationships we will not see eye to eye and conflict can occur. This does not necessarily mean that something is wrong with your relationship or that you are doomed to a life of constant fighting. How you choose to handle these differences or disagreements can be a strong determinate to how your relationship progresses.
When couples are able to negotiate instead of entering the “war zone”, disagreements can be an opportunity for growth and positive change, both personally and relationally.
Couples therapy can be very beneficial when it comes to helping couples move from a state of conflict to one of resolution and understanding.
The War Zone
When an person feels in any way threatened by another, there are three types of “war zone” behaviors that are used to try to defend and protect oneself:
1. Hot War: (“The best defense is a good offense.”) One can attempt to control or change the other person by arguing, using threats (instilling fear), or by criticizing and accusing (instilling guilt). When people in disagreement continue to use hot war strategies, it escalates eventually into violence.
2. Cold War: (“I’m not talking to you.”) One can refuse to comply with the others’ attempts to control, and try to avoid them as much as possible. This resistance is called passive-aggression and leads to a “don’t care” attitude that sabotages team efforts. The defensiveness of this strategy prevents one from being able to really listen to the other.
3. Surrender: (“Have your way.”) External compliance can be used to avoid direct conflict. However, this passive-dependent message can encourage the other to continue their control tactics. Also, humans hate to surrender and will always resent giving up under pressure. This resentment builds and eventually turns into cold war or even hot war.
Although it may not look like war zone behavior, remember that surrender only happens in a war zone. At the Negotiating Table, there is mutual respect and a willingness to stand up for one’s rights. No one must surrender.
A primary goal in conflict management is help people move from the War Zone to the Negotiating Table and then learn to communicate effectively in that situation.
The Negotiating Table
When persons choose to discuss and negotiate their differences, they can develop certain non-war-zone attitudes that will help their finding a mutually satisfying resolution:
1. Win-Win Goal (vs. win-lose): When persons in disagreement aim for a creative “win-win” outcome, they are much more likely to find it. But a need for the other to lose keeps them in the war zone. If the two are on the same team, then the other should never be regarded as an enemy. Remember that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”!
2. Openness(vs. defensiveness): It is important for each person to be open to learning the others’ point of view in some depth. They do not have to agree but they do need to understand. Openness to a new or different perspective and a willingness to compromise are both necessary for progress. Openness on the parts of both sides allows for greater creativity in finding a solution.
3. Assertiveness(vs. aggressiveness or passivity): Each side must communicate clearly their point of view, what it is that they want, and what it is that they don’t want. They should try, in a non-threatening way, to help the other understand their own perspective. It is possible to take a stand in a way that shows both self-respect and respect for the other.
Also, each person needs to take responsibility for their own feelings, behavior, and its consequences. It is not proper to blame the other for one’s own emotional reactions. No one “makes” you angry, although you may react with anger.
Adapted from: Getting Through Conflict, The Options by: Bruce Atkinson, Ph.D.