Couples and Conflict Resolution

By John McWilliams

Do you know what you and your partner are really arguing about?

Recently, a couple began to argue in session. Actually, they resumed an argument that they had during the previous weekend which led them to resume an argument from months ago regarding the route that they would take upon returning home from a trip. He wanted to go one way; she wanted to go another. They argued the merits of each route, why they each wanted to take the route of their choosing and why it didn’t make sense to go the way that their partner was insisting they go.

I couldn’t help but smile at the obvious metaphor: Are we in the same car going to the same place or am I going to Canada while you are looking at the map for Mexico? After observing my clients argue long enough to get frustrated, I asked them, “What could your disagreement regarding the route of your trip be a proxy for? What does it all mean?”

Do you ever feel like the harder you make your case to your partner regarding anything from why the toilet seat should ALWAYS be down to how long it has been since the two of you had sex, the more that your partner does the same? Then, exhausted and exasperated that your partner doesn’t see your point of view, you each give up the argument in despair with nothing to show for the pain you both endured in the process. It reminds me of Chinese handcuffs, also known as finger traps, a toy I played with as a kid. Remember those? The harder each person tries to pull their finger out of the trap the tighter the trap becomes.

A fellow therapist once told me, “Relationships are all about negotiating conflicting needs.” That was certainly the case for this couple. While exploring the meaning that this argument had for them she said that when her partner wants to “go his own way” she feels like he is “not on her team”. He said that when she insists that he does as she asks he feels that “she doesn’t want him on her team”. His need for autonomy conflicted with her need for mutuality to feel secure in their relationship. It was the conflicting need. The couple could not resolve the conflict because they didn’t understand what they really wanted from one another or how to meet the other’s need without completely abandoning their own. Once they began speaking to each other in emotional terms they each began to feel heard and understood.

Just like the Chinese handcuffs, you have to move toward one another if you want to get out of the trap.

John McWilliams, MSS, LCSW
Staff Therapist
(215) 382 – 6680 ext. 4205

Learn more about John on his staff profile, or you can make an appointment with John by clicking here.