The Essential Value of Conflict and the 3 Steps Towards Resolution - How To Win a Man's Heart

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August 10, 2014

The Essential Value of Conflict and the 3 Steps Towards Resolution

Most people do not like conflict and tend to avoid it at any cost.

I don’t blame them, actually.  Why would anyone want to face a difficult discussion with a partner, about money, sex, or how much time to spend together.

It is much easier to ignore an issue, hope it will go away or improve, or deny its importance altogether.  The only problem with this strategy is, it does not work!

Ignoring an area of conflict in a relationship is like ignoring a lump on your breast or the pain you feel in your chest when you exercise.

These pains, whether psychological or physical, point to PROBLEMS seeking RESOLUTION and require,

1) Facing the truth about the matter,

2) Determining a course of action and

3) Carrying through with its execution.

Usually couples wait too long and by the time they arrive in a therapist’s office their issues have, by now, so many layers of hurt, disappointment, anger and regret that the prognosis for repair is bleak.

The likelihood of a good outcome is immensely improved with EARLY INTERVENTION.

Consider this fictional vignette about “Charlene” to illustrate some possible precursors for current day conflicts and the habit of avoidance.

After the vignette, I offer some pointers on how to resolve conflict in a healthy and respectful way

Charlene came to therapy complaining of general unhappiness in all areas of life. She was a successful lawyer, but hated her job.

She dreaded going to work each day and avoided going out with her colleagues, lest the “truth” be revealed. She felt like a fraud waiting to be discovered.

Charlene saw no option other than to continue in her field; she needed to make a good living, had invested in training to be an attorney and she was destined to continue, in spite of her miserableness.

Student loans, her two young children, and her intermittently underemployed or unemployed husband were responsibilities that necessitated, in her mind, her continual rat-on-a-wheel existence.

In response to any questions I posed about other options or possibilities, Charlene had an objection every time. She could not afford to change careers as she would lose too much money.

She could not confront her husband about what he had done that led him to be fired from one job after another as his already shaky self-esteem would be further damaged.

Every rejected idea was like a cul-de-sac and Charlene felt as though she was hopelessly trapped with no solutions available to her. The course of her life was already set in unalterable stone even though she was only 33 years old.

I wondered what pattern from her early life Charlene might be repeating. There is a musical term, leitmotif, which is a recurring pattern or a dominant, repetitive theme.

People often present a leitmotif  that sheds historical light on a current situation. When I inquired about Charlene’s upbringing, she began to tell a story that put pieces of the puzzle together.

Charlene was the oldest of three children born in close succession to a frightened young mother and an alcoholic and womanizing father. 

The mother did what she could to keep order amidst the chaos, but inevitably, the precarious situation was apparent.

Charlene was exposed to big problems early in life and decided that she needed to fix the situation nobody else seemed able to address.

Things got worse for Charlene and her family when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer; the  father’s drinking escalated, family life became more chaotic, and Charlene became, at age 11, essentially a mother to her sisters.

She had to set her needs aside, and she became used to doing so.  Attached to this pattern of setting her needs aside,  was also a fantasy that, eventually, her hard work would pay off in a specific way. 

Charlene believed that someday her father would become healthier, quit drinking and take a renewed interest in his daughters.

There was no evidence and little likelihood that this fantasy could become reality, but what else was Charlene to hold onto?

Charlene’s story is not uncommon.

There are, of course, infinite variations, but the themes are not unusual: Early trauma (whether psychological, physical, or both) sets in motion a belief system about oneself and the world that is a combination of grandiose fantasy ( that a little girl could save her family) coupled with hopeless despair when these efforts fail.

These belief systems are typically unconscious and tend to guide a person’s actions and choices such that they continue to manifest the same type of difficulties repeatedly and become more and more despairing.

This may sound very depressing and the reader may wonder “How, then, is it ever possible to change?”  I would suggest that change begins with truth and awareness.

Usually, there is a degree of pain that prompts someone to be willing to face something, or to be willing to engage a helper (a friend, perhaps, or a therapist) to help them face something.

This is the first step: Facing the problem.

People familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12 Steps will recognize this.

Admitting to oneself that something is wrong and that the way you’ve gone about trying to address the problem does not work, that is the beginning.

Let us now return to the 3 steps toward conflict resolution that I introduced earlier.

We have come back to Step 1, Facing the Problem.

Once you have faced the problem and admitted to yourself that it is not going to get better without your conscious attention to it, you can begin to think and are ready for Step 2, Determining a Course of Action.

Imagine talking to your partner. Perhaps try role-playing with a friend or your therapist.

The goal here is to desensitize yourself, to get used to talking about something sensitive or uncomfortable and to cultivate “non-reactivity”.

What is non-reactivity? Think of gold.

Gold is valuable, in part for its solidness and the fact that it does not easily degrade or become modified when contacting other elements.

Something akin to gold’s strength is what you are working to cultivate in terms of your ability to stand your ground in the face of your partner’s responses.

To be clear, I am NOT suggesting that you become completely detached or uncaring; that would not be helpful.

What I AM suggesting is that you may be able to cultivate a way of being in contact with your partner without losing touch with, or track of, your own self, your needs, your wishes (essentially the awareness you have built through Step 1).

This is a skill that can be developed, much as you can cultivate strength or flexibility by working out your body. In fact, psychologically, both attributes are also necessary.

Strength or flexibility, independently, would be inadequate and incomplete without the other.

Finally, Step 3 is the Execution of the Plan.

Having come to understand more about the problem in your relationship and thought about it in terms of the contribution that each of you has made to its genesis and its continuation, and having perhaps practiced ways of delivering the message, you are now ready to have a conversation.

By this time, you have gone through several “rough drafts” and polished up your message. I am not suggesting that you read a document!

Rather, that the preparation that you have put into this already (on your own and with whatever help you’ve had) makes it likely that you can now say what is on your mind with less provocation and attack and greater invitation to your partner.

The invitation is to join in re-working something that has fallen into disrepair. Try to avoid blaming statements and character attacks and instead, focus on statements you make about yourself.

You can share your concerns, your frustrations, your confusions and also your benign intent (this is very important; you want your partner to know that your effort and invitation is for creation and resolution not destruction and attack).

You are bravely bringing up a sensitive topic or issue with the hope of setting your relationship on a better course.

The existential fact of separateness is why there is INEVITABLE conflict in close relationships. People need different and, at times opposite things.

This is human, normal and unavoidable, and also not something people tend to think about when they fall in love.

What happens when one person is a spender and the other a saver?

What happens when one person has a high sex drive and the other has a lower one?

What happens when one person needs a lot of togetherness and the other needs a lot of space or solitude?

It is difficult, although not impossible to talk about these things.

Sometimes couples collusively “agree” not to speak of these matters because they fear they are too far apart and could never meet in the middle.

And sometimes this is true. It could be that they discover irreconcilable differences.

It may also be, however, that two people are not TOO far apart and, with effort and conscious communication, can cultivate ways of being together in which both parties get enough of their needs met to feel cared for and comfortable.

This does not happen automatically, however, and it rarely happens without talking!

If you are feeling stuck, please find yourself some help. Most people need help to learn how to talk about these things.

Seeking help is actually a sign of strength; it means you are brave enough to face the truth!

About the author

Steven Isaacman

Steven Isaacman obtained his license in California as a Marriage and Family Therapist in 1992.

Further training at LAISPS (the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies) resulted in Steven being awarded the Psy.D. and becoming certified, in 2008,  as an analyst, and welcomed as a fellow of the IPA (International Psychoanalytical Association).

Steven has been a volunteer supervisor for the Valley Community Clinic and the Gay and Lesbian Center, and a presenter at these, and other agencies.

He is currently co-program director of LAISPS Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Certificate Program where he teaches the Object Relations module.

He is also an adjunct professor at The Chicago School where he teaches Self Psychology, Intersubjectivity and Relational Psychoanalysis.

Steven maintains a private practice in West Hollywood where he sees a diverse population that includes gay and straight, men and women, with an emphasis on longer term, psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy and analysis.

Some populations of particular interest are creative individuals and others in the mental health field. Additionally, he supervises interns in his practice and provides consultation for licensed clinicians.

Visit www.drstevenisaacman.com to know more about Dr. Steven Isaacman.




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