Conflict Recovery Style Determines Whether Couples Stay Together
Relationship Advice Tips from Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
Late on Saturday night thirty-year-old beautician Elaine sat alone in her apartment after a terrible fight with her thirty-two-year-old boyfriend Dave. She was horrified when Dave lost his cool and accused her of keeping her whereabouts a secret. They had a big fight resulting in her telling him to leave.
Why wasn’t she calling to make sure he got home okay? After all he was in a mess and shouldn’t have been driving. Did Elaine care about him or not? He replayed everything that led up to the fight over and over again trying to find the point at which things turned south. He couldn’t sleep or focus on the next hour, let alone the next day. Dave texted and called Elaine every 20 minutes trying to find a way back to her but she didn’t respond. He was stuck in the quick sands of the conflict unable to get out by himself, praying for Elaine to call and rescue him from his fast sinking state of mind.
Three hours after Dave left Elaine was confirming arrangements for a girl’s night out with her friends. She had cried with anger and sadness after Dave left, but then she thought about the good times they had together. The memories brought her a bitter sweet comfort. She needed space to get over the shock of their hurtful fight, but she was otherwise at peace with herself. She fixed herself a snack, watched some TV and connected with friends on Facebook before checking in with her parents about their anniversary celebration the next day.
By Sunday night Dave was fretting about Elaine’s lack of response. He had stayed awake all night hoping for a text message or call. There was no voice mail, no text, no email, no nothing. He was like a zombie not knowing what time it was or whether he had showered and eaten that morning. One minute he thought he should clean up and look good because she would be expecting him at her parent’s party. The next minute he was seething with rage at her callousness and utter disregard for his anxiety. Why didn’t she just say something to let him know where he stood? Why didn’t she let him explain how scared he felt when he didn't know where she was.
Elaine got through the conflict sad and hurt and functioned well, but Dave remained tied up in knots, unable to get on with his life.
Can they recover from the conflict and transition to a more comfortable place?
Or will this pattern lead to them breaking up for good?
Research evidence reported in Psychological Science, 2011, suggests that couples who stay stuck in a conflict and can’t move on are likely to break up because they don't have access to a sense of security that the moment will pass and good connections will be restored. That all important template is developed via a secure attachment in infancy that teaches the child to manage bad feelings. If both members of the couple have no such secure templates it is challenging for them to get past the conflict. They can't find a way out of the bad feelings.
However if one member of the couple had the benefit of a secure attachment during infancy where they learned how to navigate and regulate the bad feelings, they can help their partners in adult life and keep the relationships in tact.
Elaine’s ability to step out of the conflict by remembering good times and focusing on her friends and parents helped her put things in perspective and take care of her hurt and pain. She used her template of security that she got in her infancy and dealt with the bad feelings, and then moved on. She grounded herself by talking out the bad feelings and remembering the good ones she shared with Dave.
Elaine can help Dave and restore their relationship if she shares her ability to transition out of the conflict zone. The researchers found that when one partner like Elaine disengages from a conflict fairly rapidly, her partner Dave will follow her example.
Elaine didn’t forget about Dave or finish with him after the fight. She just stepped out of the conflict and found a more satisfying connection with him through her good memories. That’s what she can show and share with Dave to help him develop his inner security. Their relationship will deepen and weather all the storms that their future fights will bring.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
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Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. There is no liability on the part of Dr. Raymond for any reactions you may have while reading the article or implementing the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Raymond