My clients Kari and Rudy consulted with me because they kept having conflicts over the same issues over and over—primarily money, chores and child-rearing. They were nearing the decision to separate, believing that they were incompatible.
I asked them to pick one of the issues, and they picked a recent conflict regarding setting limits for their children. I asked them to discuss the issue, and I immediately understood why they could not resolve their issues. Stop Arguing! 5 Tips For Happier, Healthier Conversations
I explained to them that there are always two levels of communication:
- The issue itself, such as their conflict regarding limits for their children;
- The intent with which they were discussing the issue.
There are only two possible intents in discussing an issue with your partner:
- The intent to protect against losing yourself, losing the conflict, feeling rejected, or feeling controlled;
- The intent to learn about yourself and your partner—about the good reasons each of you has for seeing things the way you do. When you have the intent to learn, you are open to resolving the conflict in a way that feels like a win-win.
The reason that Kari and Rudy could not resolve their conflicts is that both of them had the intent to protect, and they were both using various forms of controlling behavior to protect themselves. In order to resolve their conflicts, both of them needed to develop the intent to learn.
There was no point in even trying to resolve their conflicts if one or both of them were in the intent to protect/control. There is no way to get anywhere when your focus is on winning, being right, being in control and not being controlled, or avoiding any other pain. As long as avoiding pain is more important to you than being loving to yourself and your partner, you will be closed and protected and the conflict cannot reach a mutually satisfying resolution.
I worked with both Kari and Rudy on how each of them was protecting and controlling. Rudy tended to shut down and withdraw, becoming very quiet in an angry way, while Kari tended to get angrier and angrier the more Rudy shut down. Both of them were hurt in these interactions. Both ended up feeling unloved and disconnected from each other. 9 Things To Say During A Fight
In order to open to each other, each of them needed to learn to tune into their painful feelings of loneliness, heartache, and helplessness in the face of the other's protections. Each needed to learn to be compassionate about their own feelings as well as the other's feelings. Each needed to care more about themselves and each other than about whether they were right, or not wrong. It needed to become more important to them to stay open and caring than to avoid their painful feelings with their protective, controlling behavior.