Couples in Conflict = Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic
It’s easy to write about topics that are socially acceptable, to express an opinion that is shared by the current majority trend. I’m aware that any writing that stays in a safe harbour of majority group think is not a growing up exercise.
I’m sitting down to write about couple conflict. With so much important publicity this past week about the serious end of the spectrum of domestic violence I’ve thought it useful to add another angle on the less extreme situations.
It is a ‘growing up’ challenge to write about any highly emotive topic. The more a topic stirs up strong feelings the more the tendency to black and white thinking. I admit that my conflict avoidant priming has rendered me a tad nervous about how this blog might be interpreted. That said I’ll now venture forth into my writing – a discussion of reciprocal couple conflict. Reciprocity means considering how both parties contribute to a pattern of fighting. I know that there are many in the field who say that the woman is always in the one down position due to her reduced physical strength. Hence if fighting is escalating to yelling and angry gestures such as door slamming the wife needs to get quick smart to a place of safety.
Let me be clear that I unequivocally condemn violence against women and children – acts of criminal assault combined with inexcusable intimidation and control. I think that white ribbon day is enormously valuable in opening up much needed public discourse on the seriousness of relationships that escalate to men intimidating, controlling and beating female partners (or ex – partners). The statistic of 2 Australian women killed each week by domestic violence is appalling! But I also see, from years of clinical practice, that not all aggressive conflictual episodes in the home are helped by a ‘black and white’ response that blames and removes the stronger male perpetrator and treats the female as a victim. There are many expressions of relationship conflict that can unhelpfully be confused with the most serious of unsafe situations; and in these cases the label of villain and victim doesn’t assist either party to grow some maturity and to rise up out of their pattern of excessive fighting.
One of my colleagues recently told me about a couple she was working with in counselling where the presenting problem was frequent fighting. She explained that both spouses would quickly and regularly escalate to yelling at each other and both would sometimes slam doors or bang fists. They could argue about the big and the incredibly small issues. The content seems less a driver of their fights than their sensitivity to losing one’s position. It’s an ugly picture in a marriage but it is very common. I heard that in this case the female had discussed the fighting with a community health worker and within 24 hours she had been assisted to a refuge with her children and was engaging a solicitor to apply for a restraining order. After beginning a process of counselling where each had separately conveyed their desire to improve their marriage, the sessions had abruptly halted with a legal process taking over. Like many of the couple’s I’ve worked with, my colleague conveyed that these spouses both seemed committed to breaking this conflictual cycle but they each felt trapped in it. They had been able to describe their highly reactive behaviour in response to the other not seeing things their way. Each would turn up the volume to the point of exasperation and then retreat to a period of distance and avoiding each other. As I listened to my colleague describe this situation I recalled a number of women who had commenced couple counselling reporting to me being told by other helping professionals that they should not stay in a marriage where there is shouting – especially when there are young children. I have wondered if the helper had asked enough questions to see the pattern of provocation and arguing that both partners acknowledge they are caught in. I have pondered whether the criminal justice system and family and child protection systems would be better able to respond to the genuine safety threats if more questions were asked about the two- way patterns of arguing. There is an important distinction between reciprocal arguing and the pattern of over-dominating aggression from the male partner (with a very small number being female partners). In contrast to a mutual intense cycle of attack, defend and withdraw in a couple relationship, the more serious pattern of violence includes paranoid monitoring and efforts to control the others interactions with the outside world..
Dr Bowen observed that conflict and distance were one of the common patterns utilised to manage anxious intensity in a marriage. Another pattern is when couples project their insecurities towards an over -focus on a child which may impinge on the child’s development; and the other common couple dance is an over- responsible /under-responsible way of relating that may leave one spouse vulnerable to emotional illness. For those in a confilctual marriage/relationship, the fighting serves a function of bolstering insecure aspects of self through the pretend strength of arguing; and then retrieving some breathing space through distancing. Couples in conflict often experience a strong reinforcing intimacy at their reunions (this is a false intimacy but can be quite compelling). Each of the 3 patterns for managing immaturity in the couple relationship can become destructive if they get fixed into a long term manner of relating. Yet it is usually the fighting couple whose relationship is judged more severely. In some families Bowen observed that the fighting created a kind of ‘conflictual cocoon’ that did not involve the children and left them surprisingly free to develop relatively unscathed. (This is distinct from conflict that draws children into taking sides or violent conflict that corrodes a child development through sustained fear).
It is concerning when people treat an argumentative couple on a par with a situation of severe regressive spouse abuse. I think this confusion happens more than people may realise. When the fighting couple have had enough of their immature fighting cycle and want help to break free of it, they need to work on changing their contribution rather than labelling one side as the villain. Neither is helped by increasing a blaming focus on the other that can lead to unnecessary relationship breakdown. I think of couples I’ve worked with where each has moved away from blaming and railing against each other to figuring out how they can bring some personal integrity to the situation. I’ve heard men speak to an appreciation of what their wife must be up against when they don’t follow through on a commitment; I’ve heard women consider the effect of their withdrawal of interest in their mate while at the same time lavishing attention on their kids; I’ve heard men and women own that when they use intellectual debating they know they leave their partner feeling at a loss to communicate; I’ve heard women after separation shift from only communicating through a solicitor to making time to talk in person to their ‘ex’ about contact with the children; I’ve heard husbands acknowledge that when they walk out in the middle of their wife expressing a complaint it is excruciating to her. A whole new path can be built when at least one spouse is willing to see the ways they contribute to the provocation and escalation of conflict. They come to see it as a false way of building a sense of secure self with their mate.
A husband who had been in a conflictual marriage for over 20 years wrote on a counselling feedback form that he had shifted his focus from getting his wife to change her attitude (or hoping the counsellor would achieve this) to a desire to change himself. He wrote:
We have each contributed to the tension in our relationship. We have each reacted in such a way as to reinforce the worry in the other person. ———One of us needs to take the initiative, put the hurt behind them, and choose to declare their decision to act, as much as it depends on them, to re-establish a good relationship. —–My effort is to be that “one of us”.
An approach that looks at what each partner brings to the equation of their own immaturity is a path to breaking a cycle of futile fighting. Even at the severe end of the spectrum, where couple counselling is ill advised and safety is paramount, I see that there is still a degree of reciprocity to the patterns of fusion from which regressed behaviour can emerge. This does not blame the woman in any way but it does mean that once safety is achieved, she can be assisted to consider ways to prevent a pattern of over deference to a man who initially presents as a kind of over- charming ‘rescuing prince”. Men can also be assisted to look at ways their family of origin relationships have given them inadequate experience of not getting their own way contributing to an excessive sense of entitlement.
This is my effort to put out my thoughts regarding a tendency I’ve experienced to over diagnose domestic violence when hearing about fighting couples. I know this is a sensitive topic but I hope I can contribute to a thoughtful response to the complexity of relationship symptoms. It’s easy to write about topics that are socially acceptable, to express an opinion that is shared by the current majority trend. I’m aware that any writing that stays in a safe harbour of majority group think is not a growing up exercise. Equally however, if I write provocatively to stir up dissent I am also on an irresponsible path. Bowen in his depth of observational research of the human family could see that the overly compliant person, who always looks for approval, is similarly undifferentiated as the overly rebellious person who creates a pretend identity using the forces of opposition. This blog has been an exercise in writing about an emotive issue where I have experienced past strong disagreement within my field. I hope to contribute to a thoughtful dialogue and information sharing about the diverse presentations of couple and family conflict.
Questions for reflection:
- How do I deal with talking about issues that I know will evoke negative reactions?
- Am I avoidant out of fear of disapproval? Or do I draw a degree of kudos from being provocative?
- How do I respond to hearing divergent views about issues that I only like to see in terms of ‘black and white’ or right and wrong?
- What is my response to the different ways immaturity is managed in marriages, /couples? Conflict, distance, focus on child, over and under-functioning?
- Do I judge any pattern more harshly than another? Am I prone to a blaming stance? Can I hold a view of destructive behaviours that both preserves accountability and considers reciprocity – how each person contributes to symptomatic patterns?
Relevant Bowen theory quotes:
On holding a position that is not in line with prevailing emotions:
The ‘I’ position stance is conveyed by: ..’These are my beliefs and convictions…it is not negotiable in the relationship system in that it is not changed by coercion or pressure, or to gain approval, or to enhance one’s stand with others…….the pseudo self is acquired in the relationship system in the prevailing emotion.’ FTCP p 473
An expression of poor differentiation (maturity) is ‘working always for togetherness in relationships with others and avoiding “I” position statements that would establish themselves as separate from another.’ P 423
Bowen’s description of very low differentiation that describes one who is violent with an intimate partner:
‘Their use of “I” is confined to the narcissistic, “I want – I am hurt – I want my rights.” …They are dependent on the feelings of those around them. So much life energy goes into ‘being loved’ or reaction against the failure to get love.’ P 162 FTCP
What increased differentiation involves:
The difference between the narcissistic undifferentiated self and a differentiating self: ‘The responsible “I” assumes responsibility for one’s own …wellbeing. It avoids thinking that tends to blame one’s own unhappiness, discomfort or failure on the other.’ P218 FTCP
Patterns for dealing with fusion (over investment /sensitivity to the other)
Early in marriage two pseudo selves fuse into we-ness. The symptoms from fusion come [later]. To manage fusion the following patterns are utilised in varying degrees:
1= emotional distance
2= Marital conflict permits each to keep reasonable emotional distance most of the time and intense closeness during ‘make-ups’.
3= another pattern continues the fusion. One spouse moves into the dependent position leaving the other as the functional decision maker.
4= transmission of the intensity onto a child.
FTCP p 433
A good book reference: Couples in Conflict, R W Richardson 2010
Helpful suggestions for recognising signs of unsafe coercion & physical abuse p114-117.
‘Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic’ – Jenny Brown