September 21, 2021
Many of us went through marriages where there was a lot of conflict--whether outwardly expressed or subtle hostility lurking below the surface. Conflict can be very traumatic, and that part of our histories makes many reluctant to date or move toward new relationships.

So, why does it happen? How does a relationship that starts out with such promise degenerate into conflict, bitterness, and pain?

Our brains are millions of years old, and they are built for survival in a wild and unpredictable environment. It is designed to keep us fearful and hyper-vigilant--always searching for what is wrong. Our brains are wired for fear--and fear breeds conflict between individuals, in families, in the workplace, and between nations.

If I'm walking down a dark Street in Chicago alone at night and someone taps me on the shoulder, my initial instinct is to run or fight. He might just be a beggar asking for spare change. But my brain assumes that he is an enemy ready to do me harm.

Our fear response is overactive. It warns us of danger when there really is danger, and more often when there is not. The brain isn't all knowing. It has the data that has been fed into it over the years. Because it doesn't know everything, it is forced to generalize from the limited data it does know. So, to be on the safe side, it tells us that lots of things are dangerous that really aren't. This sensitivity is heightened by the trauma that may have accumulated in our brains and bodies.

When we feel endangered, we are inclined to lash out to protect ourselves or to hide. If I hide, my partner is inclined to feel rejected or abandoned. That's a big deal. In primitive times, being abandoned or rejected by your tribe could mean death. So feeling abandoned by our loved ones strikes deep at our most basic security instincts. As a baby, you stayed alive only because someone loved you.

If I feel attacked and defensively lash out, my partner is likely to feel attacked in return. Her primitive brain sees me as a dangerous enemy, and she is inclined to fight back and escalate the conflict, or to go into hiding herself--which makes me likely to feel abandoned.

These complicated interactions can be triggered by something completely innocuous. One partner might be lost in thought and fail to respond when the other asks for help with a simple household chore. The first partner feels abandoned and goes into fight or flight. The other feels attacked or abandoned and round and round we go--all over some dishes or some garbage needing to go out. But it's not really about garbage or dishes is it? It's about either feeling abandoned or attacked. Marriage expert, Dr. John Gottman, says "the #1 thing couples fight about is nothing."


Relationship conflicts are generally not really about money or sex or housework or any other concrete subject. They are about fear. You fear that your partner will take advantage of you, abandon you, or attack you in some way. You fear that your partner doesn't love you and won't be there for you or will even turn on you when you really need them most.

So, how can we deal with this fear and manage conflict to enhance love and connection in relationships? I have a few ideas:

1. The most important thing is to understand the truths about your brain discussed above. If you understand that most of your fears are not real or are wildly exaggerated, then you have the option of doing self-talk to talk back to your fears instead of lashing out or hiding. For example, say to yourself, "It's not that [insert partner's name] doesn't care about me. S/he is just lost in thought." Self-awareness and awareness of how your brain works is the essential first step in managing conflict.

2. Sometimes dishes are just dishes. If your partner forgets her turn to do the dishes or picks up the wrong kind of cereal at the store, it doesn't mean she doesn't care about you. Be very conscious that anytime you think, "If he really loved me, he would [fill in the blank]," you are probably telling yourself a story. Question it. Don't just take it for granted that every fearful thought you have actually reflects truth.

3. Make and keep agreements for handling emotional flooding. No matter how much thought work you do, you will have moments where you are triggered an fear takes over. So how do we handle this? If we let nature take its course, the results are going to be ugly no matter how much you love each other. We tell our kids they need to decide in advance what they will say or do if offered drugs, so they will already know what to do when they are under intense peer pressure, rather than waiting to react when they are in the heat of the moment. As adults we need to do the same thing with relationship conflict. If we wait until we are flooded to think about what to do, the results won't be good. We are thinking with a primitive brain in those moments.

Cathy and I have an agreement that either of us can call "time out" if that person feels that either is flooded. At that moment, there are no last words, no parting shots, no explanations. The discussion stops immediately. This is NOT the silent treatment, not an avoidance strategy. Our agreement includes a requirement that we come back together and discuss the matter as soon as possible (generally not less than 20 minutes or more than a few hours). The time out is to allow flooding to subside and hearts to be calmed. We spend the time self-soothing--not preparing a rebuttal. When we come back together, we start with prayer. Usually we can resolve the issue in a few minutes when we are calm. So, our agreement, if followed, can transform a situation that might have led to an ugly and destructive fight into a small interruption in an otherwise loving marriage. With real (not flooded) communication over a disagreement, we can even increase our understanding of each other's deepest needs and desires.

4. For awhile, trust is a policy. I once had a coaching experience with a woman whose husband had been unfaithful. It hadn't been consummated completely, but intimacies have been shared that belonged inside their marriage only.  This sweet woman was constantly looking over her husband's shoulder, checking on him, checking his phone, and trying to keep him busy with a "Honey Do" list to keep him occupied and out of trouble. But this relationship pattern was driving them both crazy. It had gone on for quite a long time. We ultimately decided that she needed to make the decision to leave the marriage or to figure out how to trust her husband again. She decided that she wanted to stay in her marriage and fight for it. We decided that the best way was for her to relax and trust her husband. He had been through church discipline and done his best to make amends. At first, she could not trust him in her heart. But she chose to trust him as a policy. She chose to talk back to her fears that his mistake would be repeated. She chose to stop holding it over his head and trying to keep him occupied and otherwise trying to take responsibility for something that was really his responsibility and not hers. If you have been through a lot of trauma, it may be hard for you to trust, even if you're dating partner was not part of your earlier traumas. You will, inevitably, transfer your fear to your partner. First, decide whether or not it is good judgment to trust your partner. If so, then first trust your partner as a policy and wait for your heart to catch up. Be patient. It might take some time.

5. Assume good intent. When your partner does or says something and you feel yourself starting to react, try to make a conscious decision to assume good intent. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. When you are calm, you can explore with your partner the meaning of his or her actions or statements. In former relationships I remember times where I have said something and my partner took offense, and when I tried to explain what I actually meant, they argued with me about the meaning of my own words. They would quote them back to me and try to parse the meaning in the most negative way those words could be understood. That is useless and destructive. If your partner sees pain on your face and says, "Hey I didn't mean it like that," believe them. Your brain will be tempted to disbelieve the clarification, because it is always looking for what is wrong. Understand that and choose to believe your partner anyway. And let each of you be the master of your own words. I am the authority on what I meant in any statement I made. No one else has the right to twist or interpret my words to make me seem like a bad person. Give your partner that same courtesy, and try to assume the best intent rather than the worst.

I'm sure we could come up with a lot more ideas for using the power of intention to reduce conflict, and I hope you will write some in the comments section. Please understand that, in this fallen world, danger, fear, and contention are everywhere. They are built into human nature. That is why "the natural man is an enemy to God." The power of intention and exercising our agency to neutralize these tendencies is part of what we were sent to this earth to do. That is one reason marriage remains very important, even if we have tried and failed at it before.

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