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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

Do You Have Healthy Behavior During Conflict? Keeping the Door Open

Updated: 7 days ago

When I meet with couples for the first time, I take them through a presentation about the stages of relationship development on the importance of differentiation. After this, I want to understand how each partner behaves during conflict. Every couple has a bit of a dance that they do. Maybe Partner A criticizes, Partner B gets defensive, and then Partner A storms out. Or maybe Partner B gets upset and pouts, and then Partner A gets mad and tries to ask what is going on, which makes Partner B shut down even more, and you have a pursue/withdraw pattern. Or maybe you are a couple that has several dances that you do depending on the context. In all of these cases, the faster I can figure out what their typical dance is, the faster each person can identify their own behavior to change, and the faster the dynamic will begin to shift -- which is ultimately what you want.

This sounds pretty straightforward, but it can be really hard to pin down. After all, each person can tell me 20 things their partner is doing wrong, but they generally have a harder time telling me one thing they themselves could do differently. That's why I use this visual analogy of 2 rooms and a door. In this analogy, each partner has their own room and between them is an adjoining door -- like you might find in adjoining hotel rooms.

Before I get started -- you will see these characters are gendered. I'm going to use his and her pronouns, but those are just generic stand-ins for any gender or sexual orientation, so there is no particular significance to the pronouns I'm using.

This is Yellow's room. This room is full of all of the things that make Yellow who she is -- her wants, her dreams, her fears, what is important to her, what experiences she has had, her feelings and thoughts. It represents Yellow's Self.

And this is Blue's room. Blue's room represents his Self - his wants, dreams, hopes, feelings, thoughts, etc. Yellow and Blue want to have a good, healthy relationship. So, to do this -- what is the healthiest way for them to behave during conflict? It is to

Keep the Door Open

By that I mean, Yellow can describe what is important to her and Blue can talk freely about what is important to him. They can take turns talking and listening. They can ask curious questions and not get defensive or take things personally. And they can present their own perspective without blaming, criticizing, or shutting down. And if they can do those things, the light from Yellow's room and the light from Blue's room can mingle together and create this beautiful green glow of connection. This green open door glow is the key to emotional and physical intimacy, collaboration, compassion, and empathy. It's what most of us want from our relationships.

It's important to note that literally no one is able to keep the door open all of the time. Our brains are wired to connect with others and protect us from harm, but unfortunately, we can't do both at the same time (sentiment courtesy of Dr. Mark Brady). Keeping the door open is an act of vulnerability. Once we feel under threat, we want to move towards a more protective stance. Threats look different for each person, but any difference with our partner can feel like a threat -- and the more consequential the difference, the bigger the threat feels. As a result, there are several more protective strategies that are less healthy during conflict with someone we love. The first is you

Pull to Win

You can see that Blue is trying to pull Yellow over into his room. He is telling her a lot about what he wants, but he is not listening to her side at all. And because of this, there is no nice, green connection glow -- it's all Blue and no Yellow. In action, this looks like convincing, pleading, arguing, pressuring, manipulating, fixing. Add anger to this and you get demanding, forcing, lecturing, and judging. The next unhealthy strategy is you

Choose to Lose

In this scenario, Blue is choosing to walk right out of his room to go stand in Yellow's room. This looks like giving in, complying, going with the flow. Add anger to this and you get resentful compliance. Now you can see that Yellow is getting what she wants, but Blue has completely abandoned himself. There is no glow of connection since he walked away from his room altogether. And the final unhealthy strategy is you

Shut the Door

In this scenario, Blue is refusing to engage. He just shuts the adjoining door and retreats into his own room. This can look like shutting down, withdrawing, not talking about things, doing it anyway, sneaking. You add anger to this and you get silent treatment, punishment, and passive aggressive behavior.

There is a spiteful various of this, which is where Blue gives Yellow a little JAB with a knife before he slams the door. JAB is actually an acronym that stands for Judgment, Attack, and Blame. Anything that feels below the belt -- insults, name calling, epithets -- these all fall into the JAB category. It's a particularly nasty version of this strategy. Shutting the door doesn't require much explanation -- there is obviously no way to have a green connection glow when you have the door closed -- each person is alone in their own room.

So, that sounds pretty easy, right? Just keep the door open! And, again -- if you are talking about something non-threatening, like what you like to drink first thing in the morning, it is really easy. You can be curious, open, and honest. But if you are talking about something hard -- like whether you live close to your family or close your partner's family -- well, it can be much, much more difficult.

So, when you are anxious or upset or having a bad day, what is the unhealthy strategy that you use during conflict? Comments are always appreciated and thanks for reading!

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