Relationship conflict


Do you feel misunderstood & not heard by your partner? Have you been worried that your relationship is broken or asked the question, is our relationship conflict ordinary? When you try & speak does it end in further conflict, using unkind words against each other & toxic energy (as one client put it)? Are you fearful of communicating & experiencing difficult conversations? Do you or both of you feel really stuck? You just can’t get out of it? Also perhaps does it feel familiar, as in how you have got stuck in a previous or previous relationships too?


When I think about this stage of a relationship I think several things. First of all it can be just a stage. I also think about how Harville Hendrix talks about it in Imago Couples Therapy. I also think about it as really ordinary & to be expected when two separate people with different logics & experiences of being in this world co-exist. I wonder about each partners attachment wounds & attachment patterns. I then often reflect on what I know about it myself & how I have too felt so stuck & have not known how to get out of it. 


Harville Hendrix says this; But inevitably… things just start to go wrong. Relationship conflict begins.  The veil of illusion falls away, and it seems that our partners are different to who we thought they were. It turns out they have qualities that we can’t bear.  Even qualities we once admired grate on us.  Old hurts are reactivated as we realise that our partners cannot or will not love and care for us as they promised. Our dream shatters and we feel disconnected. Harville also talks about how disillusionment can turn to anger. We might have an experience of our partner no longer willingly giving us what we need, so we change tactics. We then spend time trying to coerce our partners into caring–through anger, crying, withdrawal, shame, intimidation, criticism–whatever works. This is when the ‘power struggle’ has begun. He says the power struggle may end up going on for years, until we split, or we settle into an uneasy truce, or until we seek help, desperate to feel alive and whole again, to have our dream back and feel reconnected. 


What I do know in this experience is often each partner says they are listening but really they aren’t. They can’t. Their nervous system is shot, their brain is not engaged & they are in fight or flight (… flop, freeze or appease) defence mode. They are trying to protect their existence & stance on being in this world. They are trying to protect & regulate (emotions). They feel under threat, even if they aren’t.


Some couples who come to therapy talk about a shift in communication, in that how they used to be great at communicating, they just now can’t manage it for some reason. Communication has become difficult. There’s a distance. There’s misinterpretation. It’s also typical here to see couples ‘exiting’ the relationship through working longer hours, more time at the gym, more TV, focusing on the kids more. Some couples come to couples therapy because there has been an event such as infidelity, where it all comes to a head. Whatever that ‘exit’ might be that’s used in order to not feel the pain of the disconnect. One partner may feel more anxious & will come forward to talk  & say more, the other partner moves backwards & withdraws & says less or nothing, attachment wounds may feel raw at this point.


Couples find themselves in survival mode & each partner is taking care of themselves the way they know how. They are trying to regulate, it just then displays itself differently. Each partner may spend time ‘making up stories’ to fill the void. Without the connection we don’t have understanding or information & for some people that can feel really distressing. To different degrees & experienced in different ways there will be hurt, fear & vulnerability. 


In Imago, how we talk about moving from the romantic stage to the power struggles stage is that in reality this can actually happen really quickly, after several months. When yourself and partner are  more serious, closer & the stakes feel higher, often romantic love wears off or the dynamic changes. Imago theory suggests you move into the second stage of your relationship, the power struggle, where each partner tries to assert their own will, which often turns in to a problem. This is a really ordinary stage of a relationship. Relationships are not just fairytale. What if we worked the other way round & managed our expectations in that it is to be expected that this might happen. To alleviate some of the disappointment & sadness or sense of failure. And to know there is a way of moving through it too, it doesn’t have to be the end. 


The fact is, each partner is going to do what they are going to do, they are going to ‘act out’. Because this is often unconscious behaviour & the way that each person knows how to cope.  Acting out might come in the form of how insecure attachment styles display themselves, with the moving forward & moving backwards I described earlier. The question here is are both partners willing to try something different? Are they willing to move towards having a conscious relationships & to break the pattern & move out of the struggle is? Can they both come forward to talk about it rather than stay separate? Is this possible without taking it personally? This ‘moving forward’ can also feel incredibly scary & some people don’t know how to talk or know about their feelings. Each partner might be at different stages in & move at different paces too. All-round it can feel really tricky & upsetting. 


I believe it is also so incredibly important to say loudly that this doesn’t mean the relationship is broken, nor are you both necessarily incompatible. It’s often nothing to do with compatibility. This is childhood stuff coming up in current day, those unmet needs & wounds. Those ‘red flags’ that we sometimes spot, well what if they weren’t actually red flags & something to be avoided, what if we saw them as information to get curious about, if they were experiences rooted in an unconscious processes & if they were actually related to old data & historical stuff stored in our bodies. I could say a lot about this & the difference between ‘gut instinct’ & old unhelpful limiting stuff.


When we can recognise that this is happening & we are brave enough to get curious in the discomfort, then what if we had an opportunity to find out what it is. If we can start to enquire & lean in to it as opposed to run away or stay stuck in unease, then we might have the opportunity to become conscious. We can also look at this way. “Conflict is growth trying to happen.” – Harville Hendrix. “Our gridlocked conflicts contain the potential for great intimacy between us.” – John Gottman. We might then realise that relationship conflict is ordinary & can be okay, it can be a way in to healing & repair.


I think about all of this a lot. I think about how painful it can feel & also how many relationships don’t get past this point. Whether you look at it as ‘power struggle’ or ‘an attachment dance’, often they are the same thing, layered on top of each other or mixed in together. Similar things  can happen in both struggles. The thing is; with information & knowledge, learning to communicate differently, learning to actually hear each other, practicing validation & empathy,  then with all of this we have an opportunity to move out of this difficulty & towards a conscious relationship. We can have the opportunity to bring the intimacy back. And who knows, we might even feel closer & more connected than we did before. There may also be a chance to break old patterns & to start to enjoy a different type of relationship. Then you can ask yourself that question; is our relationship conflict ordinary?