Handling Conflict (Part 1 – Self Regulation)

Posted on October 23, 2019


If you were reading my posts from last summer, you may recall that I am facilitating classes for the College of Marriage at my church.  We are also making videos for the lecture portion of those sessions.  This is the video script for the first of three sessions on Handling Conflict.  When the videos are up, I will share the link.

Welcome again to the College of Marriage.  This is session 4 and is the first of three sessions addressing conflict in the marital relationship.

Let’s talk about conflict.

Couples becoming stuck in escalating conflict that doesn’t resolve is something that often drives couples into therapy (or divorce).  In therapy, there are a number of schools of thought about how to help couples handle their conflict constructively.  The mission is not to make the couple conflict free, but to keep disagreements from turning into fights, and fights from becoming relationship threatening.

During the next three session, we are going to look at three different approaches to coping with conflict in marriage.  These come from different therapy types.

The type of therapy we are going to look at today is Restoration Therapy – RT is about self-regulation.  RT is based upon the idea that couples get caught in a pain cycle and that the way each partner responds is a coping strategy for their own pain.  Couples don’t have 100 fights; they have one fight over 100 different topics.  The solution is to recognize the pain cycle, and for each partner to be able to self-regulate enough to be able to choose to respond more constructively.

Next week, we will be looking at Emotionally Focused Therapy – EFT is about co-regulation.  EFT is based upon attachment theory that recognizes that human beings are made for relationship and need someone to whom they can turn for care, comfort, and support to handle the stressors of life.  EFT looks at couples in conflict as being stuck in a negative cycle which is driven by a core emotional experience such as fear, pain, sadness, and loneliness) and unmet attachment needs (such as to feel loved, valued, and emotionally safe).  The solution here is to help partners recognize the underlying emotions and needs that drive the negative cycle.  Partners are assisted in experiencing each other as safe and learning again to turn to each other for care and comfort.

In our third session on conflict management, we will look at Gottman Method Therapy – John and Julie Gottman have been researchers into marital relationships for decades.  In their research, they have been able to identify what patterns separate the masters of relationship from the disasters.  Consequently, Gottman therapy is about developing the skills that the masters use.

All of these have value.  Consequently, over the next 3 sessions, we are going to touch on all of these views.  Today again we are looking at Restoration Therapy.

As imperfect human beings, We love each other imperfectly.  When something lands on us as a violation of love and/or trust, the result is an experience of pain and confusion.  Broadly speaking, this pain is a feeling of being unloved and/or unsafe.  There are typical coping strategies to deal with these feelings.  The typical coping strategies for feeling unloved are blaming others and/or shaming self.  Either you are the problem, or I am the problem.  If one is feeling unsafe, the usual coping strategies are control and/or escape.  If your partner seems controlling, my default assumption is that this is a fear response.  You control when you are feeling unsafe.

Pain cycle.  In your handout package, you have a form that says “Pain Cycle” and another that says “Identifying Pain and Peace Cycles.”

Typically couples in conflict are triggering each other’s pain.  Whatever coping strategy one of you is using is putting the other into their pain.

As we are walking through the pain cycle, pause the video any time you need to to complete the pain cycle diagram.

Think of a recent argument.  Whatever the argument was about is really just context.  Take a look at the list of feelings at the top of the “Identifying Pain and Peace Cycles” page.  This is not an exhaustive list so there could be other things you are feeling.  As you look at this list, are there feelings that resonate with what you were feeling during the argument.  (Take a moment to list them on diagram.)  Okay.  When you feel that way, what do you typically find yourself doing?  (List that on the diagram.)  Now to your mate… When your partner does whatever he or she does to cope with their pain, what feelings does that bring up for you.  Again, you can use the form to prime the pump.  (List those on the diagram).  When you are feeling that way, what do you typically find yourself doing?  (List those on the diagram).  (Now back to the first partner) So when he or she does that, what feelings are coming up for you?

This is your pain cycle.  When you are in conflict, the problem is not you or your partner.  You are each coping with your pain the way you learned how.  When you are in your pain cycle, it looks like your partner is the enemy.  Your partner is not the enemy.  The enemy of your relationship is your pain cycle.

Even if the way you respond is really not helping, there is a reason you do it.

Sometimes it is also helpful to look at the story you tell yourself when this is happening.  In every interaction we have, we naturally, without even thinking about it, have a story we tell ourselves about what is happening with the other person and in the relationship.  This happens so fluently in our daily lives that we aren’t even conscious of it.  We make up a story about the person who cut in front of you in traffic or server at the restaurant.  In close relationships we do this when we are in our pain cycle.  This could be something like “you just want to pick a fight” or “you always have to be right.”  There are boxes at the top right and lower right that you can make any notes about the story you tell yourself.

For the Couple exercise, take a few minutes individually to map out your half of the pain cycle.  When you both have completed your half, take some time to compare your pain cycles.  Hopefully this will help you to recognize that when you are distressed, your partner is not trying to abandon you, but is in his or her own pain cycle.

Go ahead and pause the video while you do the exercise.  I will wait for you.

Welcome back.  Let’s talk about The Peace Cycle.  If this were therapy (which it isn’t), the next thing we would want to do is help you reclaim some truth.  If when you are in your pain cycle you feel unloved, is that the truth?  Let me give you a hint.  Your partner would not be sitting here unless you mattered.  This would not hurt so much unless this marriage was really important to each of you.  So what is the truth?  You can look at the list on the sheet again if that helps.  Are you really unloved?

If you feel helpless or powerless when you are in your pain, is that the truth?  Are you really powerless?

Whatever your triggers are, they probably have some roots in your earlier life experience.  We don’t have the time to unpack that here.  The point is that there is a deeper truth here.  You are loved and you do have things you can do.  If you can practice reclaiming that truth when you are not in your pain cycle, you can cope with your feelings better when you are in your pain cycle.  From there, you can choose to respond more constructively to your partner.

This leads us to The Four Steps.  If you can internalize the truth about yourself, you can then choose how you respond instead of responding out of your pain.  One way to facilitate this is to practice the four steps.  The four steps are…

  1. Say what you feel.
  2. Say what you normally do.
  3. Say what the truth is.
  4. Say what you choose to do differently.

Let me repeat that for you.

  1. Say what you feel.
  2. Say what you normally do.
  3. Say what the truth is.
  4. Say what you choose to do differently.

For the fourth step, you can refer again to the “Identifying Pain and Peace Cycles” page for some possible ways to respond differently.

Now pull out your homework.  For this week there are a few things for you to practice.   First, identify your four steps.  Daily practice saying your four steps aloud.  We rehearse these in times of non-conflict so that when you are in conflict, you have them internalized.  Second, If you should get stuck in your pain cycle, note what you were feeling and what you did.  Third, take some time to Share with your partner what it is like for you in your pain cycle.  Listen to your partner’s experience as well.

That is going to wrap us up for session 4.  Good luck with the homework and we will see you for session 5 where we will continue to work on handling conflict.

Posted in: conflict, Marriage