Conflict in relationships is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be destructive. Many partners struggle to find ways to avoid hurt feelings without avoiding discussion altogether. You might feel unable to control your actions at times, especially when you feel attacked or shamed. You and your partner may get locked into dynamics that feel inevitable, and you might begin to respond to each other based on the repetition of those patterns rather than what is happening in the present moment.
Self-awareness and empathy can allow you to define your patterns and become aware of what triggers you and your partner to feel the emotions that lead to defensive and contemptuous behaviors.
Often, understanding the patterns of your arguments is enough to de-escalate or even prevent harmful interactions. There are times, however, that this information leads partners to look at each other and say: “You know what triggers me. So when you stop, I’ll be able to stop, too.”
Who has the responsibility here? The one who has grown more aware of her partner’s sensitivity to a certain tone, or the one who learns he is sensitive to tones that remind him of earlier, painful experiences? Both, of course! Partners need to be attentive to both their own behaviors and how they react to each other. But what happens when your partner isn’t being skillful enough to alter his or her behavior? Do you jump right in and engage in your old pattern?
Here is the moment where you make an important choice. What would happen if you didn’t need your partner to change first, so that you can change in response? What would it be like to take ownership of your own development and create change simply because you understand its importance?
You can ask your partner to be mindful of your sensitivities, approach you differently, and refrain from certain language or tones. But you cannot allow yourself to place your self-control and your accountability in the hands of another. It is unfair to ask your partner to manage both of you, especially when emotions are high. It also disempowers you. It reinforces the inaccurate belief you are being carried away by forces external to your influence.
Think about what would happen if you recognized the pattern and stopped it in its tracks. Imagine being the one who chooses not to perpetuate the cycle just this one time. What would you feel knowing you had reduced the opportunity for pain and disconnection between you and your partner? And in that stillness—that moment where the dynamic breaks down—so many options emerge. What other behaviors could you choose that might lead to connection, hope, and love?
It is unfair to ask your partner to manage both of you, especially when emotions are high. It also disempowers you. It reinforces the inaccurate belief you are being carried away by forces external to your influence.
Remember: postponing or altering your reaction does not mean you condone disrespect or abuse. But if you know you and your partner are committed to a healthier relationship, then re-commit during the conflict. Slow down long enough to determine what you want to do next. Rather than feel compelled by adrenaline, anger, or inaccurate interpretations, become curious! Be curious about your own needs, feelings, and experience. Perhaps a deep breath or a walk around the block could calm your nerves long enough so you can reengage with your partner in a more loving way. Maybe you just need to clarify that you heard your partner correctly. Or perhaps you might describe how the current interaction feels to you and ask for a new beginning. Ask for as many new beginnings as you need to get it right.
What your partner does in response to any of this is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to promote interactions that align with the kind of relationship you want. As long as you come from love, compassion, and understanding, you will see your partner more clearly because your misconceptions and pain will no longer cloud your vision. Once you really see your partner, you can decide if you still want to invest your time and energy into the relationship. If your partner also longs for a new dynamic, he or she will appreciate your effort and most likely want to reciprocate by joining you in a fresh start.
Ultimately, you must begin with yourself. Take a risk and make the first move. Even a small change can dramatically alter the path you’re on and bring you closer to the relationship you desire.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S, Young Adult Issues Topic Expert Contributor
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