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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

In relationships, conflicts are personal development waiting to happen - for both partners!

In my practice, I see lots of couples. Couples who love each other, hurt each other, keep fighting for the relationship, keep having the same conflicts again and again, and who are deeply frustrated that their couplehood, once a safe heaven, can turn into a war zone.

We all know the scary divorce statistics! And no one enters into marriage to become part of these. Recent research shows that many divorced couples actually regret divorcing, but saw no other way out of their conflicts.

By understanding and taking ownership of how you have each contributed to the deterioration of your relationship, you can begin to build emotionally safer and deeper bonds to not only yourself, but also your partner. With that, your mutual empathy and patience will increase as will your ability to repair conflicts - and in time, your relationship can go back to being a safe heaven.

Conflicts in couples

In all relationships, there are always two realities present. However, when we are unconsciously caught in our attachment wounds, we feel under threat, are not able to see our partner's good intentions, and within a few moments, we find ourselves in conflict. A seemingly innocent situation turns into a huge fight or argument - sometimes we are fighting as if our lives depend on it. Without knowing it, we are coming at it from our attachment wounds: our hurt child position that wasn't cared for, attented to, validated, and acknowledged - and that's why it may feel as if you are fighting for your life!

Who's the villian?

Often, we look to blame our partner: if only he/she wasnt X, Y, and Z, we would be perfectly happy! In my book, the villian is the pattern that has emerged between you. Not you! Not your partner!

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), we do substantial detective work to figure out what patterns take you away from each other.

Often, one partner has a tendency to withdraw from, and the other a tendency to pursue conflicts. It's easy and all too normal to experience both these tendencies as destructive for the relationship; and indeed, they are if the underlying intentions aren't explicitly understood - and because we always see the world through our attachment lens when we are pressed, we don't understand the intentions of our partner: we don't see that in fact, they are trying to protect themselves as well as the relationship.

Without going too deep into attachment theory, let's have a look at the two partners mentioned:

The pursuing partner

You may feel that you are always the one looking out for your couplehood, that you need your partner more than they need you, and that they never prioritise you over anything or anyone. You might even feel shut out of their emotional universe. If you enquire about this, your partner becomes annoyed, irritable, and withdraws leaving you feel as if they don't care. This might instigate for you to pursue even harder, to turn up the music so to speak: you become angry with their apparent indifference.

All too often, you feel as if everything is on you; as if you are the one to plan, solve and carry out everything single-handed. If you don't, nothing happens. You are filled with words for your loved one - there's so much to make them listen to and to understand. So many situations where you feel neglected and dismissed. You don't understand why your partner doesn't recognise this, doesn't help you. It may feel as if you have no other option than to fight for contact - if you don't, you fear that your partner may disappear, that you and that your relationship might dissolve.

With time, you become tired. Of yourself, and of your partner. You stall and begin to consider if life wouldn't be better on your own or with someone else. Being the pursuer is tough and draining. You often feel alone; you are scared of being left, and it's really painful. It's painful because your partner is important to you - and because you have a deeply rooted longing for them.

The withdrawing partner

Like your pursing partner, as the withdrawing partner, you are also working hard and are in pain when you get caught up in the negative pattern between you.

You have a feeling of never being able to do anything right. Of never being good enough. You feel confused, frustrated, and scared. You never seem to be able to match your partner's way with words, their way of expressing themselves emotionally. You become tired. Empty. And withdraw.

Your partner may accuse you of being cold, of not caring. Nothing could be further from the truth. You care, and you crave to be a good partner, but you feel criticised and pushed into a courner. Their words feel like beatings. And give you a constant sense of being flawed, of never being good enough. You are longing for recognition, appreciation, and to be seen for all that you contribute with.

When you withdraw, it's an attempt to protect yourself - and the relationship. Often, you protect yourself by shutting down your emotional needs. You lose emotional connection to not only yourself, but also your partner. As a survival mechanism, you withdraw in a desperate attempt to not make matters worse, but nonetheless - and despite your good intentions - it always seems to do just that.

So back to the villian

The pursuer's fear of being dismissed and their attempts to emotionally connect to the withdrawer. The withdrawer's attempt to not make matters worse and to protect themselves and the relationship. Two people loving each other with a mutual wish to make things better, but stuck in their old wounds' reenactment. So who's the villian, here? Not the pursuer. Not the withdrawer. Not you! Not your partner!

The pattern! The pattern is the villian!

The villian is the negative patten that we all too often can find ourselves caught up in. A pattern of one pursuing, the other feeling criticised and attacked to then withdraw leaving the pursuer to feel neglected, dismissed and abandonned - and as a consequence, the pursuer turns up the volume. It's not difficult to imagine what then emerges: A vicious roundabout pattern. A pattern rooted in old experiences, survival strategies, and trauma which both partners bring into the relationship, unknowingly. A pattern that can go on forever.

When we are caught up in conflict, and sometimes, all it takes is a minor roll of the eyes, a subtle change of tone of voice, or a lip turned ever so slightly downwards, we immediately enter amygdala, our fear center, and instantly lose contact to our prefrontal cortex.

As such, we can't process our thoughts, actions, and emotions, but go to flight-fight-freeze responses. In this state, we are left at the mercy of our attachment wounds and will apply the same strategies as we did when we as children felt we had to fight for survival aka to stay connected with our parents whom we depended on for survival.

In other words, we are stuck in our nervous systems; and unless, we have learnt how to self-regulate, this is where we will act from - and as you might now, that's not always pretty or conducive for our relationship.

With time, the villian will tear the couplehood down and in many, many cases, ruin the relationship leaving partners with seemingly no other option than to continue arguing or get a divorce.

"We don't want to continue like this, but we also don't want a divorce. What can we do?"

In therapy, I often meet couples on the brink of divorce - and I often say to them that from my point of view they have three options:

  • They can continue as they have - and nothing will change!

  • They can split up - and the likelihood of them falling in love with someone else to eventually find themselves caught in similar conflicts is high!

  • Or, in couples therapy, they can put in the work to understand their own part in where they are. In many cases, couples end up developing a much closer, more meaningful and satisfying relationship. If not, and they choose to divorce, at least they will have done the work on themselves to not unconsciously go out and repeat it all again with a new partner.

To be emotionally vulnerable can feel scary. In particular if you have had a long period of time, perhaps even years, of conflicts tearing you down and apart. Nonetheless, with EFT, it's possible to reopen the emotional connection, develop a clear understanding of the pattern specific to you, its roots, and how to begin doing relationship in another, more productive, more caring, self-regulating, and connecting way.

The aim is not a life without conflict. The aim is to build greater and deeper emotional connection in a safe environment where conflicts are done in a less volatile manner - one in which no one feels dismissed and no one critisised. One in which, you are able to repair and tackle matters as a team.

From working with couples (hetero, same-sex, mixed race, nationality, religion, and culture), it's my experience that conflicts in a relationship always indicate a stuck, but meaningful place waiting for development to take place. Behind every frustration, lies a longing; and as such, potential for personal development. For expats, the conflicts taken at home, if unresolved, will return when living abroad - but in a foreign country and with no or little support network, they might amplify! Don't allow them to drive you apart!

If you are interested in learning more about EFT, couples therapy, check out my website here.

Embracing couple



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