Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you woke up one morning to find all your problems with your partner had disappeared? Instead of arguing, criticising or ignoring each other, you could just get on with being happy together.
Relationship theory has been dominated by the premise that when we fight, it is because we lack the skills or insight required to resolve conflict. But what if it’s not that we don’t know how to get along – we just don’t want to?
This is the view of Dr David Burns, psychiatrist and author of Feeling Good Together (Vermilion, £11.99). ‘Many couples I counsel aren’t interested in change,’ he claims. ‘They’re more interested in bashing each other’s heads in.’ The reason, he says, is that our ego competes with our ability to live harmoniously. Think of someone you don’t get along with. Now imagine you can press a button to transform your interaction into a close, caring and supportive friendship. Fancy it? Not many people do.
‘Sometimes we just don’t want to get close to the person we’re at odds with,’ says Burns. He gives his own example of a hostile colleague: ‘A close relationship with him is the last thing I want. What I need is for him to admit how self-centred he is.’
He believes this ‘joy in hostility’ is rooted in the animal side of human nature we seek to suppress. In order to improve our relationships, we have to focus on changing ourselves – not the other person. ‘You are 100 per cent of the problem, just as they are,’ says Burns. ‘The moment you change, the other person will change too. You can’t not change someone else: everything you say and do impacts on the behaviour of those around you. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself, “What do I want more: the rewards of battle or the rewards of a close, loving relationship?”’
The 12 causes of conflict
1. Power and control
Like animals, we have a primal desire for a pecking order, even within our close relationships. ‘Wanting to have power over people is part of human nature,’ says Burns. ‘We enjoy feeling superior to others – it means we get what we want from the relationship.’ Ultimately, though, we are hurting someone we are meant to care about more than anyone else. Instead of trying to control your partner, try putting yourself in their shoes. Intimidation drives out intimacy, while empathy and respect encourage it.
If we shoulder all the blame in our relationship, we are, in fact, rewarded, because we are preventing the other person from criticising us – because we’ve got in first. However, that takes lots of energy, and as a result, we’re not much fun to be around, says Burns. Instead of self-blame, consider sharing the responsibility for things going wrong and take an adult, neutral stance rather than an emotionally charged one.
Heavily pregnant Helen was so angry when her husband Adrian stayed out late without telling her, she switched off her mobile. ‘I knew he’d worry if he couldn’t get hold of me,’ she says, ‘and that was what I wanted.’ It is easy to dwell on what another person has done to us, overlooking our own provocative behaviour, but, according to Burns, the urge for revenge too often overwhelms our desire for a loving relationship. ‘It doesn’t make us happy – it just gives us a sense of righteousness. The most protracted international conflicts have been fuelled by revenge – nobody wins, nobody wants to stop. At some point, somebody has to break the cycle.’
4. Justice and fairness
If someone doesn’t meet our expectations, we feel we have every right to punish them. How many times, in the heat of an argument, do we hear ourselves say, ‘It’s so unfair’, when what we mean is, ‘This isn’t what I want’? This is a distortion, says Burns – it is reasoning informed solely by how we feel or an assumption that our feelings reflect the way things are for our partner too. It supports the erroneous belief that it is the other person who needs to change and allows us to justify hurtful behaviour. The key is to realise that what we said wasn’t actually anything to do with fairness or justice. ‘When we are annoyed with someone, we flood our minds with negative thoughts that may seem valid at that moment, but that inevitably contain errors,’ says Burns.
Although a little self-absorption is acceptable, if we find ourselves becoming enraged at the slightest hint of criticism and flying off the handle, we are succumbing to the seductive power of narcissism. Burns suggests trying a disarming technique called the law of opposites: ‘When you try to defend yourself from a criticism that is irrational or unfair, you instantly prove it to be valid. If you agree with it, you prove it wrong.’ For example, if our partner claims, ‘You never listen to me’ and we respond with, ‘You may be right about that,’ we are already proving that we are listening to them.
‘Everyone wants to win,’ says Burns. ‘However, the desire to win only keeps the battle alive.’ After years in an unhappy, physically abusive relationship, Annemarie finally found the strength to leave her husband, Phil – only to go back to him a week later. ‘We were arguing on the phone and he said to me, “I never thought you were a quitter.” I went back just to prove him wrong.’ She left Phil for good six months later and has remarried. Her new relationship couldn’t be more different. ‘I’m still competitive,’ she says, ‘but not within my relationship. My husband’s my biggest fan – not my opponent.’
7. Anger and bitterness
Anger can provide us with a sense of purpose, particularly if we are in a relationship that is draining our energy. Burns explains that anger can be expressed in three ways: active aggression (seeking out confrontation), passive aggression (unhelpfully avoiding confrontation) or by calmly and respectfully sharing how you feel. The last is the least popular, says Burns, but the most effective. Overcoming anger requires us to work on our ability to listen, he advises. The ‘one-minute drill’ can help. For 30 seconds, calmly allow the other person to make their point, saying nothing and ensuring your body language is open and positive. Then, for the next 30 seconds, paraphrase back as accurately and respectfully as you can what they said.
It’s hard to give up the belief that it’s not our fault. Burns suggests using a ‘blame cost-benefit analysis’. Draw up two columns on a piece of paper: the advantages of blaming the other person versus the disadvantages. Advantages might include: ‘I don’t have to feel guilty, I don’t have to change, I can feel morally superior.’ Disadvantages might be: ‘I won’t be able to get closer to my partner, I’ll be stuck in a cycle, nothing will change.’ If the advantages list is longer, you have definitely succumbed to blame as a motivation for conflict. If your list is more 50-50, it’s really tempting to want the other person to shoulder half the blame. But if you want a better relationship, says Burns, you must concentrate solely on changing yourself.
Labelling someone as inferior or defective has the advantage of giving us a clear, if inaccurate, explanation for all our relationship problems. Statements such as, ‘You always do this’ or, ‘He's so stupid’ are easily made, but cause us to seek evidence to support our labelling. Then we reinforce it by repeating such statements to others – and, like a good gossip, it is a process we often secretly enjoy. But there will always be evidence to support exactly the opposite statement. Seek this out and the power of scapegoating is diffused. For example, instead of saying, ‘He's totally unreliable,’ ask what evidence there is to support the opposite statement, ‘He's very reliable’. This draws attention to their positive behaviour and gives us a more balanced picture of their track record. We may enjoy recounting their failings, because it creates drama and paints us as the victim, but what about the times they were there for us?
10. Pride and shame
Being forced to look at our faults, especially by someone we love, can feel too painful, so instead we put up a wall and become defensive. The key to dealing with this, suggests Burns, is to rethink what it means to be vulnerable. ‘When you are totally vulnerable, you are totally invulnerable, because you have nothing more to hide – your vulnerability becomes your greatest strength.’ True intimacy requires us to face up to our failings.
When we fight with someone, the subtext is usually ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’. But what if you’re both right? Take this stance, and the majority of conflicts are dead before they start. ‘Anything that anyone says has some truth in it,’ says Burns. Try to seek that out instead of disregarding their views completely.
12. Hidden agendas
Of the 12 motivations for conflict, this is the hardest to face up to, says Burns. What is your hidden agenda? Do you settle for your relationship’s shortcomings because, deep down, you benefit from it? Samura is the main breadwinner in her relationship and frequently works till 10 or 11pm. Despite his often-expressed annoyance, her partner Jake is secretly pleased that he has his evenings to himself and can eat, drink or go out as he pleases. According to Burns, there are always rewards to the ‘problems’ in your relationship, which means that they aren’t really problems. ‘It might be that you like things the way they are,’ he says, ‘but the price that you pay for not being honest is a lack of intimacy. Admitting your hidden agenda is the first step in putting that right.’