Tired of Conflict?

Whether it’s with your spouse or your mother, if you don’t already experience an emotionally secure connection, even little conflicts can damage the relationship.

Because I dislike conflict so much, and because I know it’s an inevitable part of life, I’ve researched theories and techniques to become more adept in managing conflict productively in my own life, and to help my clients.

One of the most helpful tools I’ve found comes from Dr. Sue Johnson’s “Emotionally Focused Therapy.” Here’s a brief description of the core concepts in the book Hold Me Tight.

Conflicts revolve around and around like a merry-go-round because the couple is trying to resolve the problem at the level of the symptom. They think they’re arguing about sex, money or who takes out the garbage. But that’s only the surface. As Einstein said,

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Think about this:

Underneath the topic that is being discussed, we must look at the pattern of interaction between the couple. That’s where we’re going to make real progress.

Dr. Sue Johnson found that there are two main ways of coping with conflict. Both people are simply trying to get their needs met, but they go at in different ways. Neither way is productive.

  • One person moves toward their partner. They sound angry, critical, demanding, clingy or jealous. We call them “pursuers.”
  • Their partner moves away, feeling distressed. On the surface, they look disinterested, but they’re really trying to protect themselves because they feel threatened by their partner’s behavior. They don’t reach back to their partner, which makes matters their partner feel more insecure. We call these people “withdrawers.”

Pursuers and withdrawers. Around and around the merry-round-goes. Each wants to connect, but they don’t know how to do it in a healthy way.

When we stop trying to solve the problem at the level of the problem (arguing about sex, money or who takes out the garbage) and understand the root of the issue, we see that what each person wants most is to feel emotionally connect. Each wants to feel understood, respected and cared about.

Here’s a simplistic look at behavior that fosters healthy conflict management:

In order for the withdrawer to stay engaged and get his or her needs met, the pursuer must soften and present his or her concerns with what Dr. John Gottman calls a “soft startup.” Use a softer tone of voice and kind eyes. Express appreciation before stating your complaint.

The withdrawer must become aware of his or her underlying vulnerable emotions and needs, and communicate in an honest transparent way instead of distancing.

In order for the pursuer to get his or her needs met, the withdrawer must stay engaged. The pursuer must become aware of his or her underlying vulnerable emotions, needs and longings and communicate in an honest transparent way. Then the withdrawer won’t feel threatened, and the withdrawer can stay engaged.

I hope you’re seeing my point. In the destructive cycle, one person attacks and the other withdraws. But the antidote is the same for both: get in touch with vulnerable emotions and express them openly in a way that will pull your partner toward you, instead of pushing them away.

There are other interaction styles in relationships. Sometimes there are two pursuers who fight and hurt each other. In other relationships, there are two withdrawers.

If you don’t communicate your needs and your love in a way that your partner can receive it, it doesn’t matter if the garbage is taken out. The same old cycle of conflict will continue because neither of you will feel securely attached.

Developing secure attachment is the foremost goal of couples counseling.


If you’d like help to identify and change your pattern of coping with conflict, I’m here to help. Click the “Contact” button on this site and send me an email to schedule an appointment for a private session or to schedule a Couples Private Retreat.

Author: Benita A Esposito, Licensed Professional Counselor. Atlanta and Blairsville, GA.

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