The word conflict tends to rub many people the wrong way due to the negative connotation often associated with it. I mean, let’s be honest. Most of us aren’t actively seeking more of this in our lives. In fact, there are a significant number of people who would even consider themselves conflict avoidant.
While not necessarily an enjoyable experience, conflicts do serve a purpose and we can learn a lot about ourselves and our partners from how conflicts are managed. How you see your partner during a conflict and what they are actually feeling isn’t always aligned. In this case looks can be deceiving.
There are two common types of conflict management styles that I want to focus on.
Here’s what it looks like. On the surface it looks like your partner is shutting down, they may even give the silent treatment and seem like they no longer care.
You may find that your partner pulls away from you during a conflict or shortly thereafter. This withdrawal is an effort to avoid further escalation. Your partner doesn’t want the fighting to continue or potentially worsen, so they emotionally withdraw which may feel like they’re shutting down.
This withdrawal behavior is their best effort to stay connected to you. They see the conflict as a threat to the connection between the two of you. Withdrawing helps them to regain a sense of control and protection of your precious bond.
While this behavior serves a purpose, it’s not good for the overall health of the relationship. Frequent withdrawal or avoidant behavior disrupts the bond and threatens the intimacy and connection in a relationship. It erodes the trust because it communicates that it isn’t safe to be vulnerable and share feelings.
In my work with couples, I often see a pattern where one partner is described as the “withdrawer” and the other partner eventually begins reacting by shutting down and also becoming withdrawn. Now we have two people withdrawing from each other. Partners end up feeling that they have to protect themselves by not expressing how they feel to avoid the hurt that’s caused by a withdrawn and emotionally disconnected partner.
Solution for the Withdrawer
Lean into the discomfort or fear of a lack of connection. Withdrawing and shutting down only makes things worse and never leads to a genuine resolution. Say how you feel. Express your fears and get vulnerable. The simplest way to do this is by using a three-step model I call FAN.
- FEEL (say how you feel and be honest. Start by using “I” statements instead of “You” to avoid blame).
- ABOUT (describe the situation, not your partner).
- NEED (ask for what you need. Let your partner know what you want versus what you don’t want. You partner isn’t a mind reader so don’t hope for them to figure it out.)
One partner is unhappy about the amount of time her partner spends on his phone and feels that he is often distracted with the phone and pays little attention to her.
What not to say:
You’re always on your phone and we never get to spend time together. You care more about the stupid phone than anything else.
Use FAN and say this instead:
I feel upset that we’re not spending enough time together. I need more quality time with you and I think that spending less time on the phone would be a great way for us to use that time to connect more.
This looks different from the withdrawer. This individual in the relationship is the person who often engages in blaming their partner during the conflict. Blaming or attacking is an attempt to pull their partner closer. They are passionate and filled with strong emotions.
These emotions often overwhelm them and they need their partner to understand what they are feeling and why these emotions exist.
The problem here is how it’s done. The expression of needs and feelings comes across in a way that the other partner perceives is filled with negativity, blame, contempt and criticism.
One person either withdraws when conflict arises and the other blames or purses to seek connection. The interesting thing about this pattern is that both partners want the same thing. They both want to feel connected but they each seek it in different ways.
Solution for the Pursuer
Take a pause by taking a deep breath and looking at the situation with a new pair of lens. Then ask yourself these questions using RAP.
- Responsibility (Take some responsibility for even a small part of the problem)
- Appreciations (What has your partner done right? Share that with them and express appreciation.)
- Polite (Ask for what you need, don’t make demands)
Using these steps can help to break the pursue-withdrawn pattern and replace it with a cycle that’s more supportive, loving, and nurturing. It’s a win-win for both partners.