Unproductive Conflict

There are many factors that can contribute to unproductive conflict and some of them should be most realistically addressed through individual or marriage counseling. For example, certain personality problems can derail attempts at healthy negotiation. A history of trauma can also make even healthy levels of conflict seem unbearable. The current discussion cannot adequately address these kinds of problems . It also cannot address situations where drug abuse, physical violence, or other extreme forms of toxicity are ongoing in the relationship. However, if both you and your partner usually enjoy good relations and usually start off negotiations with good intent, then read on. In the midst of a conflict, if you find yourselves off the subject and at each other’s throats, then some of the following interventions may help.

First, it should be stated that there should be no attempt to totally eliminate conflict from your relationship. Healthy conflict is necessary to maintaining respect and even passion in a lengthy relationship. Without some conflict, most couples will develop a sense of loneliness and painful boredom. This is because each partner must risk expressing their own separate will in order for the other partner to feel that another solid person is in their company. There are many frustrated spouses who lament that their partners are too compliant. For clarification of this point, read about the initiator-dependent syndrome elsewhere in this kit. Instead of eliminating conflict, the better objective is to make it work for you as a couple. The way to do this is to turn it into healthy negotiating. This can be done with most conflictual situations. However, if there has been a betrayal of trust as in a broken agreement, then the conflict will necessarily involve more confrontation and less negotiation. The violator needs to be confronted with their responsibility to come up with a plan of correction. Hopefully, this latter form of conflict is not occurring very frequently because most relationships suffer terribly when there are frequently broken agreements. If this more serious type of conflict is going on, then either individual or marriage counseling would be the best route. However, first make sure that there are actual mutual agreements that are being broken, and not merely rules or “should” statements that one person has been unilaterally declaring.

When the difficulty is merely a conflict of interest and not one of broken agreement, then principles of negotiation are most applicable. For an excellent treatise on this subject, you might want to purchase Fisher and Ury’s classic text Getting To Yes. This simple and well-written book was derived from The Harvard Negotiation Project and has been popular with professional mediators for many years. It outlines the basic principles for how to negotiate “without giving in”. Some of these principles are inherent in the interventions recommended later in this discussion. Their most basic principles are as follows:

1) Deal with interests, not positions. 2) Separate the person from the problem. 3) Insist on objective criteria. 4) Invent options for mutual gain.

In the context of an intimate relationship, negotiations become even more complicated by additional psychological considerations. The four principles apply very well to all negotiating but they do not address a very important additional consideration that pertains to intimate relationships: that is the issue of pacing. Pacing is an inherent right that each individual has for managing their own emotional tempo. For example, for one partner to insist that their partner be immediately available for intimacy would be a violation of their partner’s emotional pacing. As such, it would be a violation of their psychological boundaries. More psychologically sophisticated couples are aware that each person has a right to emotionally prepare for certain events such as intimacy or conflict. The reason why this is so important is that many conflicts in relationships blow up over this very issue. Many partners don’t realize that they are fighting over boundary violations because they are not allowing adequate preparation for healthy negotiation. This is not to say that only one partner holds all the responsibility for the blow up. Very often, pacing will become ignored when the other partner is avoidant and never comes back to a topic of conflict. Where the first partner raises issues of concern and the other partner only stone-walls and indefinitely puts off negotiations, then the first partner assumes that they have to grab onto the second partner to resolve the issue while they can. As such, both partners often share responsibility for having set up a system of boundary violation. To reverse the system in which one partner intrudes on the pacing of the other, two principles need to be accepted and implemented:

1) Each partner must respect that the other person has a fundamental right to postpone, schedule, and prepare themselves for emotionally intense interaction. (This applies equally as well to sex as it does to conflict). 2) Each partner must accept full responsibility for proactively scheduling negotiations with their partner. Each partner must accept responsibility for being actively consistent with follow-through on such commitments. Simply put, the partners agree to a) respect each person’s right to emotionally prepare, and b) consistently and aggressively pursue negotiations despite the preparatory delays. When a couple can do all this, it often reduces anger in the conflict because an additional layer of psychological threat¬†is removed. Neither partner has to fear losing their personal boundaries as when the other partner demands immediate intense interaction them. The first intervention below is designed to help a couple begin preparing for conflicted negotiations. The subsequent interventions are designed to further reduce emotional intensity by using some basic principles of healthy negotiation.


INTERVENTION #1 Learn to negotiate a schedule for when and where to meet for negotiations.

1) Make a list of 6 past conflicts in which either your or your partner attempted immediate negotiation of an issue. 2) For each conflict, the partner who was previously confronted should write down how they would have liked to have negotiated a better time and place for the conflict. Both time and place alternatives should be very specific (e.g. 8:00 PM tomorrow night at the table in the den). The biggest mistake people make is to avoid a specific agreement about time and place. However, both parties should have some choice among the alternatives. No person should merely dictate their one choice to the other. 3) Once you and your partner have agreed upon the past conflicts and the preferred methods for rescheduling negotiations, then plan for “re-scripting” of the conflicts. In other words, you will restart an old conflict with one partner demanding immediate negotiations. Then the other partner will practice their new rescheduling technique. If a specific time and place are not suggested, then the first partner should press for one. Even though all play acting may seem silly, it is actually a fairly sophisticated method for getting some new learning into some old emotionally driven behavior. After you have practiced the rescheduling for half a dozen times, start using rescheduling techniques when other conflicts come up in the future.


INTERVENTION #2 Learn to objectify the conflict

Fisher and Ury’s book emphasizes this principle redundantly. Conflicts are more toxic when it becomes a brute contest of personal will. The more objective criteria are used, the more both partners’ egos are protected from danger and resulting anticipatory personal attacks. To objectify the conflict, here are several suggestions:

1) Use a physical setting that frames the problem as being separate from the other partner. For example, it is an excellent idea to use a note-pad laid out in front of you both. Imagine both of you sitting side by side, looking at a written outline of the issues. Ask yourself what the image of that physical setting is telling the subconscious. Now imagine both of you sitting facing each other without any written materials. It’s quite a different “message” isn’t it? Don’t underestimate the power that externalized graphics can make in cooling down a conflict. It sends a strong message that you and your partner are not the problem. You might even want to expand on this theme and use a large flip chart or black board. The more you can externalize and objectify the conflict, the safer you both will feel. With safety comes more creativity and chance for resolution. 2) Negotiate a framework of objective criteria. If you and your partner can’t agree about how to resolve the issue, you may be able to agree about a reasonable standard of how to resolve the truth about the problem. For example, suppose you and your partner can’t agree about spending a certain amount of money on a car. Your may find that your conflict is based upon a different interpretation of your financial status. However, you might agree that if you were to have X amount of money free in your budget, then you could afford the car. The two of you might then agree to collaborate in putting together a budget of past annual expenditures. You could also agree that you would bring the data to a CPA consultant. The CPA could objectively review your data to see if you really do have X amount of money available.

Besides using impartial consultants, there are other objective criteria that can be negotiated. Essentially, anything that can be quantified and measured will help to defuse the conflict because it covertly defuses a covert fear of both parties: The fear is that a precedent will be set for the other partner’s desires as being more important than their own. Use of objective criteria removes the conflict from being a contest of wills.


INTERVENTION #3 Learn to negotiate a creative trade for mutual gain

When objective criteria and applied logic have not been successful, you still have the option of doing a trade. To do this, you need to have kept yourself free from the arrogant position that your partner “should” concede. Instead, you need to view your your partner’s interests as being legitimate although not necessarily paramount. You can reframe the conflict into a different kind of negotiation. For you to commit to meet your partner’s interest, what interest of yours do you want met in return? Forget about any misguided notion that you should always be motivated to make sacrifice because of love. The truth is that if you don’t protect your self interest enough, you will lose your love.

Trades can be very creative. Most people have a tendency to think narrowly within the same dimension of their original conflict. This restriction is unnecessary. You can certainly ask for a concession on a completely different issue if you are to offer a concession on the original one. One important exclusion is the realm of sexuality. Sexual feelings are much too delicate to survive obligation in any such trading.

The following examples a provided to give you a feeling for how different interests can be traded for mutual gain. Where one partner cares more about interest X and the other partner cares more about interest Y, then both partners can make a mutual gain by doing a trade. For example:

Partner A agrees to follow their partner’s career move for 5 years to a new city – in exchange for- Partner B’s agreement to pay for Partner A’s 3 year’s master’s degree after the move. Partner A agrees to Partner B’s purchase of a sports car – in exchange for – Partner B’s agreement to take joint dancing lessons and to become joint members in a dance group. Partner A agrees to spend Christmas visiting Partner B’s parents – in exchange for – Partner B’s agreement to go on the long-deferred wilderness camping trip desired by A. Partner A agrees to build on an additional room to the house – in exchange for – Partner B’s agreement to take courses on oriental and other forms of exotic cooking

The reason why trades are so useful is that they can help prevent emotional damage. When two partners have negotiated a trade, no partner’s will is being symbolically elevated as being more important than the other’s. Psychological equity is maintained and covert resentment is prevented.


INTERVENTION #4 Learn to insist upon dealing with “wants” and not “shoulds”

This is a variation of Fisher and Ury’s principle of dealing with interests and not positions. In domestic relations, there is often a tendency for each partner to try to claim the moral high ground while they also attempt to manipulate their partner with subtle shame. You can recognize this is usually starting to occur when there is an implied “should” statement being presented instead of an “I want” statement. Conversely, there are occasions when “should” statements are appropriate. Some examples would be: When an explicit agreement is being broken; when personal boundaries are being violated; or when the welfare of children is being jeopardized. However, these exceptions are usually involved in only a minority of domestic conflicts.

When one partner is disguising their desire in the form of a “should” statement and no moral violation is taking place, then it is a good idea to refuse to play that game. If you find yourself in such a conflict, you can insist that your partner reframe the issue. For example, you can ask your partner: “Can you restate that as a “want” statement instead of a “should” statement?” If your partner refuses, you can “hang tough” and refuse to continue the discussion. Frequently, the other partner will eventually come back to you more ready to negotiate from a more respectful orientation.