Conflict and Connection in Crisis

Our world is facing a lot of uncertainty right now because of the VIDOC-19 pandemic. There is so much fear, panic, anxiety, sadness, anger and many other emotions that are taking up space in people’s hearts. The hectic life is interrupted, leaving all kinds of emotions, thoughts, memories and reactions on the surface. Some people are not ready to “sit down and feel” their emotions, some people are not comfortable expressing their feelings, others don’t even know what they feel. People experience and express their emotions differently. And that’s okay. Let’s not forget that.

Change is an essential part of life both in nature and in ourselves. But sometimes we’re not ready for sudden change, it’s hard to accept and adapt to it. It takes courage to learn to be flexible during these times. And even though it can be difficult, it is worth it because if we can learn to be malleable, we can learn to bend under pressure but not to break.

Relationships are currently going through a testing period. So many couples are confined to their homes, some with children, some stressed from working from home, trying to balance personal space and conviviality, and trying to make sure they are financially secure. Pre-existing conflict can now be amplified. And differences in personalities and past experiences play a huge role in how each partner chooses to deal with COVID-19. Some couples struggle because one partner’s worry and anxiety level does not mirror that of their partner. Some couples argue because of disagreements about the right steps to take. Some need more space and some seek more companionship.

Sooner or later, everything will return to normal or a new normal created. And before you know it, it will also be a memory. But for couples to stay together, both partners need to be aware of the decisions and choices they make in their daily interactions.

HOW TO DEAL WITH CONFLICT

Conflict is inevitable. Dr. John Gottman’s research indicates that in healthy, happy relationships, the approach to conflict is gentle. When something disturbs a partner, they soften the way they raise the issue. They keep their physiological arousal levels low by taking breaks when they are very upset. Couples who are happy together repair their interaction when they make mistakes or say hurtful things and fall apart if it becomes negative; and they slowly move towards a respectful and safe compromise or space to honour each other’s differences. Happy couples accept each other’s influence, which means they are open to having their minds changed by their partner’s perspective rather than “fighting back” and escalating the conflict. They constantly communicate acceptance of each other. And let me explain here that the concept of acceptance does not mean agreeing with, approving of, giving up on, or liking the situation. It simply means seeing reality as it is, believing that beliefs, thoughts and everything that happens in the world can and has the right to exist (otherwise it wouldn’t be, right?). Acceptance creates a connection with ourselves, the world and our partners. It means freedom from suffering. It allows things to be simple.

As I mentioned earlier, conflict is inevitable. Moreover, the emphasis on conflict resolution is misguided. Dr. Gottman’s research revealed that 69% of conflict in relationships is perpetual. There is no resolution because it is based on lasting differences in personalities and needs. Couples may argue about these issues or feel trapped.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals may have different reactions in part because of differences in how they feel fear, how they understand and need security, how they cope with the unknown and their past life experiences. A disconnect that can create problems with relationships focuses on how people feel, what Gottman calls “meta-emotion”. In order to deal with this disconnect, couples need to understand their partner’s experience and relationship with specific feelings such as anger, sadness, fear, security, panic, etc.
Trauma can be big or small, anything that is hurtful and has left an emotional mark on the heart.

The key to understanding your partner’s reactions to COVID-19 is to make your partner feel safe by sharing his or her relationship with the stranger, by telling you what he or she needs to feel emotionally safe during this difficult time. Can you find your partner’s? Can you share yours? Pain is inevitable in life. Everyone experiences it. What have you learned from difficult times filled with uncertainty? Can you share this with your partner? Bring kindness to yourself and your partner. Take a moment to acknowledge your partner and your difficulties and be kind.

FEEL CONNECTED AND LOVED BY TURNING TO

How do you feel loved? When do you feel connected to your partner? What does he or she do to communicate with you? In the small moments of every day, we contact our partners to establish a connection or what Dr. Gottman calls the creation of the “emotional bank account”. We save money that, just like money in the bank, can be used as a cushion when times get tough. The basic process is to raise awareness of how your partner requests the connection and expresses emotional needs, and then decides to turn to these offers. Sometimes we may not notice that our partner is trying to connect and it’s fine. No one can be aware all the time. However, if too many attempts to connect go unnoticed, your partner may stop trying. This can lead to an emotionally dead relationship. No joy, no affection, no laughter, no humour – couples who don’t respond and are not available for each other.

Human relationship, connecting sincerely with someone is what most of us are looking for. We were not meant to be lonely. So it is not surprising that the California Divorce Mediation Project reported that the most common reason for divorce was to gradually separate and lose a sense of closeness, and not feel loved and appreciated.

Gottman’s research on the six-year follow-up of newlyweds found that couples who remained married turned to their partner’s offers on average 86% of the time, while those who divorced averaged only 33%. So let’s see how our partners feel connected to us and the next time they make that attempt, let’s turn to them with curiosity, openness, friendship and love.

Remember that being constantly helpful, warm and supportive of each other, as two good friends would, will do much more for the strength and passion of your union than an extravagant week-long vacation.

Finding out how your partner feels loved can give you insight into how you can further support your partner and nurture your love. The languages of love are: words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, physical touch and quality time. You can be creative and find ways to show your love during this difficult time while you are (hopefully) at home with your partner. Affirmation words are verbal expressions of your affection. Examples might be: “thank you for doing the dishes”, “you look very handsome/beautiful today”, etc. Gifts are symbolic in a way that shows that you were thinking about your partner even without his or her knowledge. A sweet card, a flower, their favourite book, etc.

Everything that is thought out indicates that you know your partner, you notice it and appreciate it. Service means doing something thoughtful and useful. Can you make dinner tonight so your partner can relax? If they are busy working at home right now, can you serve them breakfast? There are many examples. Physical touch can include both sexual and platonic touch, holding hands, hugs, kisses, massages, sex, etc. and Playing games, cooking together, taking walks, doing puzzles, etc.

INCREASE MELTING AND ADMIRATION TOWARDS YOUR PARTNER

Working at home/ staying at home now means you spend more time with your partner. It’s normal to feel irritated, upset and angry sometimes when your partner doesn’t turn up the way you want. But by simply reminding yourself of your partner’s positive qualities, even if he or she has personality traits and behaviours that annoy you, you can prevent your partnership from deteriorating. The simple reason is that affection and admiration are antidotes to contempt, which is one of the predictors of divorce (according to Dr. Gottman’s research). If you maintain a sense of respect, sympathy and affection for your spouse, you are less likely to feel and act negatively with him or her when you disagree and conflict. Train your mind to analyze the environment to find qualities and actions you can appreciate about them instead of zooming in on their mistakes. Invoking gratitude in difficult times is the best medicine!

While you’re at home together, go back through your dating history and recall a time when your partner did or said something important and special for you and describe why it mattered. Note that there are always thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories inside you. Take a step back and see how they affect you. Do you think about your partner in negative or positive terms? You see, our minds are thought machines and our thoughts can become beliefs if we keep replaying them. What happens when you have a negative idea about your partner? Acknowledge the thought and write down what you do next as a reaction. When we stop noticing, we can get stuck in painful patterns of reaction, criticism, blaming, closure, etc. Let’s choose to notice the good of our partners and the world today.

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