by Annette Kreuz Smolinski
Licensed clinical psychologist (Spain), Dipl. Psych. ( Germany),
Trainer and supervisor in couple and family therapy, PACT Level II practitioner
The annoying truth is that all couples fight. Conflicts are an absolutely normal phenomenon in human systems, and couples are not an exception to this rule. It is unrealistic to think you could avoid having arguments from time to time.
When you face issues such as the education of your child, the sharing of household chores, finances, sexual relations, and your relationships with relatives, some of your partner’s opinions and preferences will inevitably differ from your own. He or she will not just do what you want. However, when it comes to hot topics, you need compromise and acceptance.
The good news is that conflict avoidance is more dangerous to your relationship than is properly handled conflict, or “fighting fair.” The bad news is that if you fight “dirty,” you will ruin your relationship, even if you come up with an agreement that seems to work.
Spain, where I live and work, is a Southern European country with a strong religious tradition. In this environment, couples typically do not go into therapy unless they are extremely distressed. As the literature shows, these kinds of couples are the least likely to achieve successful outcomes from therapy (Snyder, 2006).
When I start therapy with a couple, I don’t know if they are heading for separation or will be able to stay together. However, since I have begun to incorporate PACT techniques, the percentage of couples who stay together has clearly increased.
In my opinion, working on how couples fight is extremely important. I usually include a special session about fighting fairly during the second or third meeting. The rational I give is that partners must learn how to create win-win outcomes for one another. This skill is a must for both partners regardless if they stay together or not. To help with this, the PACT therapist focuses on principles of true mutuality, fairness, justice, and sensitivity, with the emphasis on both partners working toward mutual relief as quickly as possible. Partners are expected to pay close attention to each other’s facial, vocal, and bodily cues for purposes of regulating each other’s emotional state while in conflict. The idea is that as soon as partners are perceived as unfriendly, a biological threat system takes over and prevents either from getting what he or she wants. The required moment-by-moment attention to external social emotional cues helps to keep partners from becoming dysregulated or threatened.
Consider Jorge and Isabel. He is 61, she is 52, and they have been married for 38 years. They have two grown children, both of whom are independent and thriving. A month ago, the psychiatrist who was treating them in individual therapy suggested they separate. She considered Jorge to be pathologically jealous due to his obsessive compulsive disorder. At that time, she referred the couple to me, so they could determine their future.
Jorge had moved out before they came to see me. In our first session, he said, “I only lose my temper with Isabel.” It turned out that at home he is a champion of conflict avoidance. He withdraws until he can’t any more, and then he attacks. Isabel presented her own version of the couple’s estrangement. Both think the other overpowers them.
In the fourth session, an old sensitive issue arises: Jorge has always yearned for a dog. When the kids were small, he talked Isabel into buying one, but the lack of support by him and the children left the dog’s care to the overwhelmed working mother. Isabel banned the dog from the house with “it’s me or the dog.” Jorge now wants a dog if they come together again.
To address this issue, I gave them instructions for the 5-minute argument. The couple must sit face to face, with eye contact, and start to talk about the topic. They must finish within 5 minutes, with both partners feeling okay. This is videotaped and “fed back” to the couple immediately.
For Jorge and Isabel, the turning point came in the third round of 5 minutes when Jorge stated calmly, clearly, and sorrowfully, “Look, the dog is exactly the same issue as our bedroom: I feel you don’t take me into account. I am not in your mind when you make decisions.”
Noticing him tearing up, Isabel reacts softly: “I am so sorry about the bedroom. I promise that won’t happen again. But when you try to impose a dog on me, I feel obliged and I rebel. Instead, I want you to seduce me. That is the only way I will do what you want, because I will want it too.”
Jorge responds: “Will you go on a date with me to visiting an animal shelter, so I can show you the kind of dog I like now? I promise we won’t get any dog until you are totally seduced by the idea!” He smiles, and both laugh.
As a therapist, it is rewarding to see couples start to fight fair, think of conflict resolution as creating a win-win situation and immediately repair wounds produced in the heat of an argument.
Snyder, D. K., Castellani, A. M., & Whisman, M. A. (2006). Current status and future directions in couple therapy. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 317–44.