Recently, I’ve been teaching a class about the transition to marriage, and one of the things we discussed was some best practices for dealing with conflict. Every couple in the class could identify with the frustration that comes with feeling as if you’re fighting in circles with your partner, and not making any progress. Before you know it, defensiveness and criticism have crept into the conflict, and you have barely touched the issue that needs to be discussed and hopefully resolved.
The question is not how to get rid of the conflict in our relationships, but how do we engage in conflict in a healthy way that leads to increased intimacy and admiration between partners? Some people may wonder if this is even possible.
The answer is yes. But we need to understand what’s really going on during our conflicts if we are going to engage in conflict in a way that builds up our relationships, instead of tearing them down.
This experience of going in circles often stems from what is called a “pursuer-distancer dynamic” in relationships. We tend to see this most strongly in intimate partner relationships, but it can occur in any relationship. The process goes like this:
When there is tension about an issue or concern about the relationship - everyone’s anxiety naturally goes up. People attempt to manage their anxiety by either pursuing or distancing.
- Pursuing: The partner who tends to manage their anxiety by pursuing attempts to get closer to their partner, requests more time, attention, conversation and information. The last thing they want is to feel rejected by their partner.
- Distancing: The partner who tends to manage their anxiety by distancing will get quiet, avoid talking about the issue, avoid engaging with their partner, request more alone time, or even pretend like the issue is not valid. The last thing the distancer wants is to feel overwhelmed or criticized by their partner.
The writing on the wall is not hard to decipher.
The very behaviors the pursuer is using to decrease their anxiety (trying to get close to their partner), inadvertently raises the anxiety of their distancer. The distancer usually responds by withdrawing as a means of decreasing their anxiety (trying to get space), which inadvertently raise the anxiety of the pursuer. And around and around they go!
It’s important to note that neither the pursuer or the distancer are solely responsible for starting or maintaining this cycle. Each person contributes to the cycle, and if either party changes their pursuing or distancing behaviors, the cycle changes. Also, in some situations or some relationships you may be more of the pursuer, and in others, more of the distancer.
But in order to stay out of these unhelpful cycles of conflict, you'll need to find a different way to manage anxiety, be willing to tolerate a new level of anxiety, and risk being more vulnerable in your relationships.
- For the distancer, this means resisting the urge to withdraw physically, emotionally or intellectually from the conflict. Basically, you’ve got to practice showing up in the conflict instead of running away.
- And for the pursuers, this means resisting the urge to chase after your partner, especially if you sense them pulling away and breathe through a new and uncomfortable level of distance during a conflict. Generally speaking, the more you dig, the less you get.
So where does this leave a couple? Surely, never addressing your conflict and permanently feeling anxious is not the solution. Instead, focus on reigning in your tendency to be the pursuer/distancer in order to give each partner a better chance at staying in the conflict long enough to make some progress on the issue. Adjusting your focus to “how” you address conflict is what gives you the best chance at “if” you successfully address the issue (regardless of what the issue is). Then the hard (er) part comes: Now is the time when you bravely share with your partner the thoughts, feelings and desires that seem scary or impossible to share and work towards increased understanding and resolution. True intimacy requires transcending the fears that hold us back and opening up ourselves more fully to one another.
When discussing this topic with the newly married class, they did something both beautiful and courageous. They requested information from one another about what they could do to support their partners in their efforts to resist their urges to either pursue or withdraw.
- The distancers shared:
- “When you have an issue that you want to discuss with me, the more gently you bring it up or the more of a heads up I have, the easier it is to resist running away.”
- “The more gratitude you share about my efforts to engage with you, the more I want to try and the more confidence I have that I can resolve an issue.”
- “At the end of the day, remember that it’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. Ultimately, I’m just afraid of disappointing you, hurting you or that I won’t be able to solve the problem.”
- The pursuers shared:
- “If you don’t know how to solve the problem, or if you’re not ready to discuss it, it would help me calm down if you simply acknowledged there is an issue.”
- “Communicate your commitment to discuss it at a better time, and that you do care about resolving things with me. Otherwise, it’s easy for me to feel abandoned and scared of losing you.”
- “The more you speak up about being dissatisfied, the more confidence I have that I don’t have to go searching for what you’re unhappy about. At the end of the day, I want to know you're forthright with me, so I have a chance to adjust my behavior when I need to.”
I hope their bravery inspires you, as it did me. I hope you can see your part in your relationship dynamics more clearly, and that you use this information to engage in conflict in a way that leads to more intimate relationships and more lasting solutions.