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Rethinking conflict in relationships

Conflict in relationships is inevitable; you can't run away from them even if you wanted to. If you think you can, you're most probably avoiding conflict.

There are many popular beliefs about conflicts that need to be challenged. Once one starts rethinking what conflict is about and the ways to go about it, one begins their journey towards a healthier relationship with themselves and others.

One of the key things about conflict I want to address here is the polarisation of 'good' and 'bad'. In a relationship conflict, we have a strong desire to locate blame, i.e. "Someone or something needs to be the cause of why I am feeling bad". Often, our partner can be the first person to be suspicious of. We may then find an issue we have with them that becomes the canvas for this projection. In turn, they'll feel bad and similarly be motivated to look for the cause of their bad feelings. We therefore being a cycle in trying to get rid of our bad feelings - the discussion no long becomes about the initial issue, but about who is right and wrong.

To layer all of that, we are also creatures with binary thinking about the world; good/bad, right/wrong, emotional/rational, woman/man etc. The binary of good vs bad is essential to conflict. In conflict, this binary thinking tells us that one of us is right and the other wrong. Since the idea that we could possibly be wrong is terrifying (no one wants to be the bad guy), we'll get creative about the ways in which we can prove we're not. That leaves us with believing our partner is the one that's bad.

We have a hard time therefore leaving the conflict because of the motivation to prove we're not bad. Our partner will do the same. Eventually, it becomes sticky and tangled as it escalates because we both are looking for the resolution based on this binary thinking.

Yes, it is very tempting to look for the bad and good guy in conflict. But, we have to pull ourselves away from this way of thinking.

First of all, we need to understand that relationships are co-created. It takes two to create a pattern. This realisation will help us accept that there isn't necessarily a 'bad' or 'good' guy in a conflict. After all, whatever we do means nothing if there isn't another person to make sense of it. So, there is no such thing as a spiral if there is only one person reacting, responding and interpreting.

One thing we can do to stop the spiral, is to step back from the situation so there is space to de-escalate. This is one of the skills we teach couples in couples therapy. So although it takes two to create a pattern, it takes one to break it. So, if we leave the escalation, they should (ideally) follow. It is difficult, but it is possible. It requires a lot of self-regulation, emotional-regulation and patience, as well as discomfort! After all, we have to give up on the idea that there is a bad guy between us.

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