It was a rough day in the Hollander’s office. Lori and I had just finished a Couple to Couple Session with partners we would describe as “dripping with pain.” We gave them our best, but at every turn seemed to hit a wall. At the end, one partner charged out of the room screaming at her partner, “You never listen, F…you, I’m done!”
We felt exhausted and depleted and we were just the therapists. I can’t imagine what the couple was feeling after the session. Given the intensity of the feelings, chaos and hopelessness we had just witnessed, it is fortunate no one suffered a heart attack.
Feeling defeated and anxious, we processed what happened in the session. There were strong emotions in play. Despite our attempt to break through the tumult, there were only moments where we observed some insight on their parts. Their individual issues fit together life the perfect storm.
Later that day one partner called and said he had realized that in fact his partner was correct, he hadn’t been listening. He’d heard me say in session that validating his partner’s perceptions and feelings did not mean he necessarily agreed with them. He understood once his wife felt heard she would be able to listen to his point of view. His wife realized calling him names and walking out was very hurtful to her husband. We had made an impact. They made another appointment and asked for some communication strategies to continue their progress.
Here are the five “secrets” we shared to work through conflict:
- Move beyond anger to the connecting feelings of pain, sadness and fear. Right below the surface of anger is the deeper feelings of hurt. When couples can’t see beneath the anger, nothing will get resolved. It’s vital to express the genuine underlying feelings to create connection.
- Accept the feelings of each partner as valid. No one can tell us how we feel. Each person has a right to their feelings and the job of a partner is to recognize and work to understand those feelings, regardless of agreement or disagreement.
- Avoid arguing about who is right and who is wrong and instead seek to understand. Debating who is right is a lose-lose proposition. The goal of communicating is to hear, understand, and validate each other’s point of view. Only then can you find mutually acceptable solutions.
- Persevere even if it seems you are not getting through. Just as we did with our couple, don’t give up. It may take more than one conversation to reach the goal of understanding. If the conversation gets heated, take a break and come back to it. Commit to the process.
- Let go of the conflict and leave it behind. It’s vital not to bring past conflicts into the present. Couples do have chronic conflicts, but it is important to stick to the present issue at hand.
Putting these secrets to work takes practice. And it’s not easy – we have been practicing for 25 years! We can tell you – it works!