Everyone has a couple that they look at as being perfect. They just get on all the time, they work well together, and they *never* fight. Right? Wrong.
All couples fight from time to time - even that perfect couple. Conflict is a natural, normal part of being in a relationship, and having a fight is no measure of how strong it is.
In fact, you could say that the fact you argue - and can work through it, is a sign that your relationship is strong and healthy. This is a guide to understanding why couples might have conflict, and how you might be able to handle it.
Clearhead CEO and co-founder Angela Lim spoke to relationship counsellor Steven Dromgool about conflict for our podcast, Clear the Air. You can listen to the full podcast on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The relationship ideology
Globally, around 50% of marriages end in divorce. But one of New Zealand’s leading relationship therapists says even that doesn’t tell the full story.
One of New Zealand’s leading relationship counsellors, Steven Dromgool, says of the 50% of couples that stay married, a third are miserable, and another third really struggle before getting to a place where they’re happy. It’s only the other third (a sixth of all couples) that get into a relationship and it just works from the outset.
So what is it about our relationships that make them such hard work?
Steven puts it down to our expectations. He says the idea that a relationship is designed to make you happy is “delusional”.
As we look through history, marriage has traditionally been about power, family dynasties, raising children or managing property. But the idea of marriage for love has only really taken hold in the last 100 years or so.
Steven contrasts this attitude to arranged marriages. In these instances, both parties recognise they need to actively try to build a relationship together - often because they’re starting from scratch. And contrary to common belief, he says these types of relationships tend to be fairly successful.
The point here isn’t that you should avoid getting into a relationship; far from it. It’s that all relationships require work, and the more prepared you are to put in some effort, the higher your chance of success.
Relationships can make you feel great - loved, supported and understood. But these things are earned, not automatic. Those who are prepared to put in the effort to strengthen their relationships are the ones with the best chance of overcoming the conflict that inevitably will arise.
The honeymoon period (vs the reality)
There are many different stages to relationships. In this case, we’re distinguishing between the early days of the relationship - “the honeymoon period” - and the time after that.
The reason that’s important is because we think and feel differently in the early days. We even have different biological reactions.
Chemically, the brain gives off phenylethylamine, which is a stimulant that makes the relationship feel exciting. It also lowers the brain chemical serotonin, which can make you obsessive; thinking about the other person a lot and wanting to be with them all the time.
This state of mind is also called limerence, and the reason this happens is to make it easier for you to make a connection with the other person. You act differently, you feel differently, and it’s all to help build a relationship. Once you’ve done that, the chemical reaction in the brain subsides and you’re left with your true selves.
Steven Dromgool says this is when you can start to see a power struggle occur within a couple, where one party is trying to make the other function the way they do, which is doomed to fail.
In these cases, people can feel resentful for their partner having *changed*, or things being somehow different to what they used to be. That may be the case, but it seems much more likely that it’s just part of the challenge of a natural relationship cycle.
The two roles in a relationship
So why does this happen? It’s usually because the two people in the relationship approach conflict differently.
- The avoider’s main fear is being criticised. When an issue arises, their first thought is to protect themselves, withdraw or show it wasn’t their fault. Steven Dromgool says about 80% of avoiders are men.
- The pursuer’s main fear is being abandoned. They want to be supported, and sort issues out quickly, but can come across as being negative or complaining. This can make avoiders feel criticised, and when they look to escape criticism, it can make pursuers feel abandoned.
The thing to be aware of is that your partner’s natural reaction to conflict can often create the feeling you fear most, whether it’s criticism or abandonment. But that’s NOT always what’s happening.
Example: Let’s say the avoider forgot to put the rubbish out one night. The next day, the pursuer might point this out, and the avoider might offer an excuse or shut the conversation down because they feel they’re being criticised.
The pursuer wants to feel like it won’t happen again, but if the avoider’s response doesn’t satisfy them, they’ll continue looking to solve the problem, which feels like criticism to the avoider. In return, the avoider’s efforts to protect themselves feels like a lack of support to the pursuer.
Miscommunication is a big issue in the context of the avoider/pursuer scenario. Steven Dromgool says it’s easy to misinterpret what your partner is saying because, as an avoider, you approach things differently to your pursuer partner (and vice versa).
If we pick up the rubbish example, the pursuer is essentially trying to communicate that they want support running the household. But the avoider hears something different. They may feel like the pursuer is calling them useless. That’s the message they respond to, even if it’s not what the pursuer was actually saying.
For the pursuer, the avoider’s defensiveness can seem like a lack of commitment to pulling their weight, or even to the relationship as a whole. The more they go looking for a sign of commitment, the more the avoider withdraws, and the less likely they are to get it. Both parties end up feeling the very thing they fear most.
In order to reduce miscommunication, there are a few different things you can do. The trick is to listen to what’s *actually* being said, not what you think is being said.
- Try paraphrasing what your partner just said before you respond. This helps to listen to what they’re actually saying, rather than thinking about your response, and it irons out misinterpretations before they become bigger issues.
- Touch your partner. Even if you just put a hand on their shoulder, it can be a real circuit breaker when you are arguing. Touching them shows you still care and calms the pursuer from thinking you will “abandon” them.
- If a conflict is taking a long time to resolve, take a break. Sleeping on it will help to gain more perspective, and it will also lower the emotional intensity of the discussion.
- Finally, sometimes you might feel like you have a solution to the conflict that your partner isn’t open to. In these instances, try phrasing an open question; “As a favour to me, would you be open to...?”
Related: For more, check out Clearhead’s Active Listening exercise.
Keeping the spark
Wouldn’t it be great if you could keep that limerence from the honeymoon phase all the time? Unfortunately there’s no trick to doing it, but there are things you can do to keep the excitement in a relationship.
Don’t think of these as relationship hacks - they’re about where to focus your effort to strengthen your relationship, get to know your partner, and make them happy.
- Try something new together that you’ve been wanting to try for yourself. It’ll help you push your personal boundaries and keep the relationship fresh and interesting.
- Learn to communicate intimately to really see each other. Talk about the things your partner is into, or the things that are unique to them and their personality. Celebrating their individuality and giving them attention will bring excitement into the relationship again.
- When it comes to gestures, little and often beats big and rare. There’s nothing wrong with big expensive birthday presents, but it can be just as nice to pick a flower to give to your partner for no reason. Small, regular touches show you care.
- Remember that giving feels good. The effort you put into doing something for your partner can be hugely rewarding in itself.
- Don’t expect your partner to match the effort you’re putting in. It’s about choosing to be more playful, exciting and loving because that’s who you want to be, rather than doing it because you want it back.
This article is based on a Clearhead podcast with Steven Dromgool, one of New Zealand’s leading relationship therapists For more from Steven, listen to his episode of Clearhead’s Clear the Air podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Topics covered in this podcast includes:
- Why do more than 50% of relationships end in divorce?
- Why being in the honeymoon phase of a relationship is similar to being high on cocaine?
- Why expecting Love in marriage leads to relationship failure?
- How does what feels familiar from our childhood determine the type of love we look for?
- Why do couple struggle for power against each other after the honeymoon phase?
- What can you do to stop fighting?
- Why do most people choose to get into dysfunctional relationship?
- What are the two main attachment styles and how it manifest in the relationship?
- How do you reduce miscommunication?
- How long should you wait before you resolve a conflict?
- Why do people have affairs?
- What is the first step to take towards recovery after an affair?
- What do you do in the first 2 weeks after learning that your partner had an affair?
- What is the one question you can ask your partner to get them to work on the relationship?
- Why is becoming a parent like having an affair?
- How can keep your relationship exciting and recreate that honeymoon spark again?