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Transforming Conflict into Connection

Issue 32

by Elaine Shamos and Glenn Simpson

Research has long confirmed that the mind and body are reciprocally intertwined. Specifically, our physical health is compromised by stressful feelings, especially conflicts that remain pent up or poorly expressed.

For couples in recovery, having conflict can be especially stressful due to past trauma, fear of anger, and lack of certain skills. Many of our clients say their arguing often escalates leading to one person shutting down or feeling the issues just never get resolved.

We have found couples need to let go of beliefs they have about conflict in order to start learning new strategies. Here are some common misbeliefs about arguing and new ways to look at conflict.

Just because you have conflict, does not mean you should not be together. All couples argue and it is totally normal. You are two individuals with separate ideas, goals, and personal histories.

Contrary to the belief that all conflict must be resolved, couples need to focus on managing it, because most issues do not have a single solution. Making fundamental changes in how the couple understands each other is a more realistic approach.

There is not a right and wrong in conflict. Both people in the relationship have their own valid points of view and feelings about how they experience life. This is where listening is crucial. Be willing to understand the other and hear them without interruption. It may take time to truly know where your partner is coming from and try “walking in their shoes.”

The myth that men are more logical, and women are more emotional is outdated. Everyone has emotions and everyone has a need to be understood. The best way to engage with each other may need to be worked out with “rules” for arguing. For example, if one needs a break, they ask for a time-out to gather their composure.

Anger is not wrong. How one expresses it can be problematic. Using “I” statements rather than blaming or shaming, taking breaks from each other if it gets “too hot”, never using physical force, understanding that anger may come from trauma – all these strategies help with successfully expressing anger.

We may have been brought up with the idea that unless you love yourself, you are not capable of loving another. We are all recovering from something, and some wounds may never heal. But we can recognize their influence and still have loving, compassionate relationships.

Managing conflict may require help from a therapist who specializes in couples’ therapy. Here, there is a mediator to not only listen, but help people with boundaries and practicing new skills.

This may seem awkward initially, but soon these techniques become new habits and rituals that can lead to deeper connection.

Happily, there are techniques any couple can learn to argue better, and they only require a commitment to the relationship. Remember, conflict is good for your health and the health of your relationship.

Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos, MPH, has 30 years experience as a public health professional and is the former director of Dartmouth’s Women’s Health Resource Center. Glenn Simpson, LCSW, CADC, has a private practice specializing in substance use disorder, and couples therapy. They are working together on a book for couples in recovery.

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