Managing Conflict | Couples Therapy

Managing Conflict | Couples Therapy

For most of us being in conflict is an uncomfortable experience that can quickly escalate once our fight, flight or freeze instinct is triggered.  Conflict can trigger our fear and in the heightened state of arousal we can say and do things that we later regret.

As we examine conflict with couples in our practice, there is a great deal of emotion that stems from memories and feelings from the past.  These old emotions may be fueling the intensity of the current argument without you being aware of it.  Examining the emotions that are present during conflict, and better understanding where they are coming from, can shift how you deal with conflict dramatically.

The fight, flight or freeze responses are key physiological responses to be aware of when managing conflict.  If we were living in the wild and confronted by a tiger, the body would produce stress hormones and increase our heart rate to distribute blood to muscles in order to maximize our physical response, while taking blood away from other vital organs, including the brain.  Once this fear response has been triggered, our brain therefore has a much lower capacity to process thoughts and feelings, and as such our ability to deal with conflict is greatly diminished.

While we are unlikely to be facing a tiger, the level of threat can be perceived as being equivalent, from a physiological standpoint, when our partner is angry with us or we are angry with them.  When considering the heightened sense of arousal, that is most often disproportionate to the level of danger being encountered, we can also understand why small arguments can become all out wars.

Research has shown that once the fight, flight or freeze response has kicked in, it takes an average of 20 minutes for the body to return to normal levels of functioning, and we once again have restored our brains normal ability.  This is of course provided that the source of the danger has dissipated, or the danger is perceived differently.

Small disagreement can escalate into an all-out argument when our body’s fear response is triggered.  In this deregulated state couples often bring up multiple issues and suppressed resentments as hostile and unfiltered attacks.  There are many ways to successfully regulate your emotions and responses, and learning these is key to keep yourself calm, safe and express your needs clearly.

Another important element in managing conflict is learning how to repair the relationship and restore emotional connection once the argument has ended.  Research has shown that this is a key skill in keeping your relationship in good standing, and important in establishing healthy communication.

We help each of you uncover and understand what is triggered within during an argument.  In learning to trust yourself and each other you will transform conflict into constructive dialogue and creative collaboration, and deepen your relationship.

We encourage you to also read the Communication section.

Questions for Thought

Below are a few questions that are intended to help you consider your personal situation more closely.  If your responses cause concern and you want to make changes, we encourage you to contact us to discuss how we can best help.

  • How do each of you deal with differences of opinion?
  • Are you interested in understanding the other person?
  • Is there a compromise possible here?
  • How was conflict handled in your family when you were growing up?
  • What have you each learned from past mistakes you have made?
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