How to Avoid the Same Conflict

Are you having the same conflict over and over again in your relationship?  Do you find that once it is resolved you find yourself only hours, days, or weeks later in the same conflict?  This is a common phenomenon for couples.   My hope is in the following paragraphs I can provide you with some practical tips for stopping the cycle of conflict.

Defining the Problem

Do you find yourself during conflict blaming your partner?  This is a natural reaction to have however when you have this reaction you create a partner that becomes defensive.  Your partner in turn becomes too busy defending himself or herself against your attack that the problem you were attempting to address gets lost. I want to challenge you to look at the problem in a new way.  Neither you nor your partner is the problem; instead it is how you are relating that causes the conflict. It is important to me mindful of how you are communicating as this can often make the conflict worse than what you were initially communicating. Once you define the problem as a relational problem you take away the blame game.  Now we can focus on resolving the problem.

Triggers That Lead to Conflict

In relationships there are triggers that lead to the conflict. Each relationship is different, but I have noticed some triggers that seem to be more prevalent in relationships.  To assist you in discovering the triggers in your relationship I have created a list of twelve of the most common below:

  • Assumptions
  • Mind Reading
  • Predicting
  • Silent treatment
  • Bringing up the past
  • Comparing
  • Tit for tat
  • Being bogged down in semantics
  • Sarcasm
  • Raised voice/yelling
  • tone of voice
  • Walking away from partner during conflict

Do any of these sound familiar in your relationship? Do you recognize your partner or yourself using any of these triggers?  One of the most damaging and common triggers is making assumptions.  It is not by chance that I put it at the top of the list.  Do you make assumptions about what your partner is saying during a conflict?  Are you verifying this assumption with your partner? How does this assumption affect your communication? I encourage you to ask yourself these types of questions for all of the triggers in your relationship. You need to be aware of and understand the triggers in your relationship if you hope to prevent them from repeating.

The Relationship Conflict Cycle

An interesting phenomenon that occurs with couples is the relationship conflict cycle.  The cycle begins when you use a trigger in a conflict and it results in your partner using a trigger as a response.  This creates a circular reaction in which you both feel the conflict remains unresolved.  Let us take a few of the triggers above and look at how this cycle may appear in your relationship. For example, you make an assumption during a conversation that your partner meant to hurt you by what he or she said.  In response to your assumption you change the tone of your voice and start to bring up past occurrences where you felt your partner intentionally hurt you.  In response to your tone of voice your partner starts yelling and brings up other irrelevant hurtful events that occurred in the past.  In response to your partner you become angry and leave the room.  As your partner follows you out of the room to continue the conflict you give them the silent treatment.  Eventually your partner will leave you alone as you will not respond.  At this point you both leave the conflict feeling blamed, not heard, or loved.  Due to the pain caused during this conflict neither of you bring it up again which leaves the conflict unresolved.  Until the next time you make an assumption which results in you changing your tone of your voice and the pattern above starts all over again.

The above example is just one common conflict cycle I have seen in my practice.  It is important to note that couples may have several cycles and it may not look exactly like the one above.  What is important is to understand how the triggers in your relationship lead to the cycle.

How to Change the Conflict Cycle

Now you may be wondering, I figured out my triggers and my cycle.  Now how do I change it?  There are four steps to changing a conflict cycle.

Step 1: Define the problem as how you are relating versus one partner’s fault.  This is crucial to stopping cyclical conflicts.  You cannot move onto the other steps until this step is complete. Both partners in a relationship are responsible for the conflict.  It is how you relate and not one individual person’s fault. If you cannot view the problem as such it will be very difficult or nearly impossible to change how you have conflict.

Step 2: Identify the triggers in your relationship, with emphasis on your own. Make a list of triggers together with your partner.  Once you both create this list you will start to become aware of when and how you use your relational triggers. This will help reduce blame and assist in identifying the cycle and how starts. Remember it is easy for us to identify the triggers our partner does but this can lead to the blame game, which then causes your partner to be defensive. Taking personal responsibility for our own triggers is key to changing the conflict cycle

Step 3: Identify your conflict cycle. I gave an example of a conflict cycle above and how triggers feed it.  Can you identify a similar pattern in your relationship? This one is tricky and may require assistance from a couple’s therapist.  It is very difficult when you are living a conflict cycle to identify the exact trigger patterns. Even as a couple’s therapist, I will most likely need assistance in my own relationship to discover the cycle.  If you can identify the cycle without assistance, the most important part is taking personal responsibility for your piece.  Initially, even after you have discovered your relational triggers, you will still get stuck in the conflict cycle.  Let’s use the example I used above regarding you making assumptions about your partner intentionally hurting you. You will continue to make this assumption, even after you have discovered it as a trigger, often resulting in the conflict cycle.  The important part is to take personally responsibility for the trigger.  For example you might say to your partner, “I am sorry, I made an assumption without verifying it with you, I know it escalated the conflict”.  It is important to remember that even after discovering a conflict cycle you will continue to do it.

Step 4: Practice, patience, and change. To change the conflict cycle you will need patience.  I know this is hard to hear as you want immediate change. It did not take you a day to get into the conflict cycle and it will not take a day to get out.  To change the cycle you will need to take personally responsibility for you piece. This includes continuing to identify your own triggers that lead to the cycle and identifying the cycle after it takes place.  By continued practice of identifying the triggers and the conflict cycle you will notice your relationship will struggle less.  Not only will you see less conflict but you will be in conflict for a shorter period of time. Now an important piece of this is that you will continue to have conflict, all healthy relationships do, it is how you resolve them that is most important.

Danger Zone: As I mentioned above, it can be very difficult to get out of relationship conflict cycles without the assistance of a couples therapist.  Here are several reasons you may need a couples therapist:

  • You can identify triggers but cannot identify the cycle.
  • You can identify the cycle but not the triggers.
  • The conflict continues to escalate even after identifying the triggers and cycle.
  • You cannot identify triggers or the cycle but are stuck in the same conflict.

The most important thing to look for when seeking a couple’s therapist is someone who has experience with relationship conflict patterns.