13. Ineffective Conflict Resolution - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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13. Ineffective Conflict Resolution

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Accrued resentment over perceived inequity often requires active consideration by both partners.  Addressing problems as they arise can prevent resentments from accumulating in the first place.  This requires a willingness to confront issues and risk conflict.  Engaging in conflict to gain positive resolution then becomes critical to healthy relationships.  Couples often fail to understand this as they often present to the therapist that they fight too much or need to learn how not to fight.  They want to avoid conflict and thus, avoid the resolution critical to couple's intimacy.  Depending on family-of-origin and cultural models or experiences, many individuals conceptualize harmonious relationships as the absence of fighting or conflict.  Carrie and Kori easily agreed that they deeply loved each other and were committed for the long haul.  They had gotten married during one of the legal same-sex marriage windows before it became permanently legal in California.  There was some stuff that they had difficulties with and needed to work out.  Somehow, it was hard to do.  And they said, they did not want to fight especially after all they went through as a lesbian couple in a covertly and occasionally overtly homophobic and heterosexist community.  They felt a kind of responsibility to make it work as a married lesbian couple.  This proved however not to be the key issue for them.  Carrie and Kori revealed that neither one of them saw their respective parents argue or fight while growing up.  "They must have hid it from us… or argued in their bedroom after everyone was in bed."  Carrie did remember that sometimes it was somewhat tense in the house, but since it did not spill onto her it wasn't that big a deal.  Kori remembered getting up to go to the bathroom at night and seeing her father drinking beer in the kitchen by himself.  Once in a while, she would wake up to find him having slept the night on the couch.  Carrie's parents were still together.  "I guess they do ok.  It works for them.  But they don't show a whole lot of warmth between them."  Kori's parents divorced when she went to college- the last kid out of the house.  It was both a surprise but not a surprise to her.  "It was kinda weird when they divorced 'cause although I was sad, somehow I was relieved too."

From these models or lack of models… experience or lack of experience, Carrie and Kori thus did not know how to fight productively.  Both sets of parents hid anger and conflict, so neither positive nor negative resolution was observed.  Both Carrie and Kori had internalized implicit messages that conflict or fighting was wrong or bad.  Other individuals, having witnessed or experienced highly toxic emotionally if not also physically abusive family conflict as children, may replicate the toxicity as adults.  Conversely, they may avoid replication without knowing otherwise how to resolve conflicts positively.  Having experienced negative conflict dynamics taught the individual what not to do, but does not enable them to naturally develop healthy conflict resolution skills- aside from a generic strategy of not fighting.  That may have been the experience of one or more of Carrie or Kori's parents.  However, intimacy virtually ensures conflicts.  When individuals are not close, they are not in physical or emotional proximity enough to love and nurture nor to hurt or disappoint.  How to ensure one will experience great emotional pain?  Fall in love!  Once partnered, individuals will have conflict overtly, covertly, and/or secretly.  Secret conflict internally or holding resentment is but one outcome of ineffective conflict resolution skills.  Conflict may be avoided for as long as the individual or the couple can stand it and then erupt with pent up energy in still dysfunctional processes.  This can further scar and frustrate partners and intimidate them into further avoidance, only to be disrupted again when held grievances become overwhelming.  However well intended, Carrie and Kori's avoidance of fighting was potentially more destructive than the issues that needed resolution.  The therapist reframed their problem identification, for example by stating, "The problem is not that you fight too much or need to stop fighting.  The problem is you don't know how to fight!"  Another potential reframe would be "The problem is you fight lousy!  You need to learn how to fight 'right!'"

"Although Piaget (1985) was one of the first theorists to view conflict as a positive and natural occurrence (in the cognitive sense), Deutsch (1973) first delved into new territory by distinguishing between constructive and destructive conflict.  Constructive conflict is defined as a process of negotiation, collaboration, and/or brainstorming in order to obtain a mutually satisfying goal for opposing one's partner.  In contrast, destructive conflicts terminate with both parties feeling dissatisfied with the outcome, which may conclude as a result of coercion, physical and/or verbal threats that may escalate beyond the immediate issue by expanding into other topics.  Recently, recognition of the positive methods of dealing with conflict in family relationships such as communicative conflict, perspective-taking, moral reasoning, and justification has emerged (Chapman and McBride, 1992; Easterbrooks et al., 1994; Katz et al., 1999, Rinaldi and Howe, 1998)" (Rinaldi and Howe, 2003, page 442).  When a problem or conflict is "solved" through manipulation or intimidation, including a partner avoiding the conflict altogether in anticipation of how arduous or how painful confrontation would be, there can be a slow and insidious corrosion of the relationship.  Rather than risk conflict, one or both partners may seek emotional attention and sustenance from the children, friends, hobbies, and possibly affairs.  When suffering resentment and hurt without recourse because of sanctions against fighting, they can also turn to self-medicating substances such as alcohol or illicit or prescription drugs or self-soothing behaviors that may or may not be clearly harmful.  Failing to deal with specific issues and failing to deal with the fundamental disconnect from loss of intimacy however inevitably becomes harmful to the emotional well-being of one or both partners… and probably of the children in the family.  Introducing to the individual or couple that not only is it okay to fight, but that it is necessary to fight is a major paradigm shift.  Conflict is reframed as the essential process of interplay and negotiation to achieve equality, equity, status, responsibility, roles and any number of other important relationship, couple, and family concerns.  Key to the shift is the therapist pointing out that a fight where one "wins" almost always leaves the other partner resentful if he or she feels a "loss."  The loss is not necessarily of power and control, access, money, or the like, but loss of respect, caring, trust, and as a result, intimacy.  Hence ineffective conflict resolution makes both partners losers.  It becomes a pyrrhic victory that potentially destroys the relationship.  Intrinsic to successful conflict resolution are anticipated, assumed, and functional equity issues including the right to speak and be heard in the relationship, couple, or family structure.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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