Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Dear Neil: My girlfriend and I are constantly fighting. Even small things can provoke a huge fight between us, and we seem to fight over the same things again and again. These fights have escalated to the degree that we’re seeing much less of each other as a result. How can we determine why this is occurring, and what can we do about it?
Polarized In Colorado
Dear Polarized: Some conflicts couples engage in can seem overwhelmingly complex and intense. Conflicts that don’t get resolved can eventually kill a relationship, because instead of coping with the problem effectively, a couple can get gridlocked over it—having the same conversation about it over and over again with nothing getting resolved. Because they make no headway, they feel increasingly hurt, frustrated and rejected by each other. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling behaviors become ever more present when they argue, while humor and affection become less so. Both people become all the more entrenched in their positions, and less willing compromise.
Gradually the couple gets overwhelmed. They then start a slow process of trying to isolate or enclose this area of conflict, but actually they have started becoming emotionally disengaged from each other. They are on the course toward parallel lives and inevitable loneliness—the death knell of any relationship. Too often couples who feel mired in conflict distance themselves from each other as a protective devise.
The characteristics of a gridlocked problem are:
- The conflict makes you feel rejected by your partner
- You keep talking about it but make no headway
- You become entrenched in your positions and are unwilling to budge
- When you discuss the subject, you end up feeling more frustrated and hurt
- Your conversations about the problem are devoid of humor, amusement or affection
- You become even more unbudgeable over time, which leads you to vilify each other.
- This vilification makes you all the more rooted in your position and polarized, more extreme in your view and all the less willing to compromise
- Eventually you emotionally disengage from each other.
If this sounds painfully familiar, take comfort in knowing that there is a way out of gridlock, no matter how entrenched in it you are. All you need is some motivation and a willingness to explore the hidden issues that are really causing the gridlock. The endless arguments symbolize some profound difference between the two of you that you must uncover before you can put the problem in its place.
I will address how to uncover the hidden issues in next week’s column.