By Gary Moore
How do you look at conflict in your marriage? As something that promotes negative feelings toward your partner,and eventually leads to more conflict and more disconnection? Or as a catalyst for closeness and understanding?
During times of conflict, one of the worst feelings is to be misunderstood. There’s no way around it: being misunderstood sucks. It can make you feel frustrated, upset, and hopeless. And in times of conflict those feelings are magnified.
Let’s be real. Conflict isn’t easy. There’s hurt. There’s misunderstanding. And, at the same time, there are parts of us that are screaming to feel validated and understood. The problem for many of us is that we have learned to communicate in a way that actually pushes our partners away from truly understanding us or meeting our needs. It’s common to see criticism or contempt in a relationship where partners feel disconnected and misunderstood.
According to Dr. John Gottman, conflict is created by a lack of attunement. He defines attunement as “mutually understanding each other on a core level.” There’s my mantra – mutual understanding. One of our deepest needs is for others – particularly our spouse – to understand us.
In order for conflict to become a catalyst for closeness and understanding, we have to change how we look at and approach conflict. Let’s assume an issue in your relationship has escalated to the level of conflict. By definition, then, you are on opposite sides of the issue. You each have your own perspective and you are not only convinced that your perspective is the right one, but the way to solve this issue is to convince the other of the validity of your perspective and thus the deficiency of their perspective.
In this situation, instead of both of you being on the same team, you see each other as opponents. This is common. In the heat of the conflict, we often highlight our positive qualities and label our partner with negative ones. This is pretty much like saying, “I’m okay; you’re defective.” This competitive view stands in the way of resolving relationship conflicts. You’ve lost sight of the fact that in relationships, you win as a team, or you lose as a team. There are no individual winners and losers. Remember, you are on the same team, and you have the same opponent – misunderstanding.
Instead stand back and accept the premise that every situation can yield two different yet valid perspectives that deserve equal weight. Allow yourself to believe there is always something worth learning from your partner’s viewpoint. By gaining a new perspective on what is going on, conflict stops functioning as a barrier to connection and becomes a bridge to mutual understanding.
Shift your viewpoint from viewing the problem as the other person’s fault to viewing the problem as inhabiting the space between the two of you. Think of you and your partner as separate islands with murky water separating you.
Instead of trying to fix each other, focus on cleaning that murky water. After the water is cleaned up, you can each dive below the surface of what appears to be going on to discover what is actually going on. This visual figuratively illustrates that you need to travel to your partner’s island to see their perspective of the world.
Typically, when we are in conflict, we become stuck on our island and start throwing verbal rocks at our partner’s island. But if we swim over, walk around, and see the problem from their vantage point, we increase the chances of shifting our perspective to “Oh, I can totally understand how you see it this way. That makes perfect sense to me.”
Once you accept the idea that in every disagreement there are always two valid points of view, it’s no longer necessary to argue for your own position. Instead, you can empathize with your partner’s feelings and really understand their “island.” This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but it’s vital that you understand where they are coming from and why. When you do this and your partner does this for you, it becomes much easier to find a solution that works for both of you.
During his research, Dr. Gottman discovered that problem solving or giving your partner advice before understanding their feelings or perspective is counterproductive and actually interferes with reaching a resolution. Learning how to use conflict as an opportunity to understand and get to know each other better is vital.
Remember, the goal isn’t to win. The goal is to mutually understand. When you give up trying to change your partner into handling situations or problems like you do, you can understand them as they are and that’s when real intimacy blooms.
For more in-depth teaching on this, go to my website, www.mutualunderstanding.net, click on the MUM Live tab and scroll down near the bottom to the teachings on the A.T.T.U.N.E. Conversation Model.