I need to share a story with you – about the power of communication – and how it can make or break a relationship. I have seen too many couples struggle on without help, stuck in unhealthy conflict cycles, often resulting in the relationship breaking down. Yet as a Relationship Coach and qualified Couples Therapist, I have also successfully helped hundreds of couples to manage conflict compassionately, deepen their bond, and re-build their relationships.
The story is of John* and Jane*. They came to me for help because they felt their marriage was failing due to a lack of intimacy in their relationship.
John and Jane had only been in the room with me for 5 minutes before I could see what the problem was.
They weren’t managing conflict in a healthy way.
They seemed to disagree with each other about everything, including what led them to seek my help in the first place. They each blamed the other for their problems. They kept repeating the same arguments over and over again, and had been doing so for as long as they could remember.
Complaints would quickly turn into arguments about who had had the most stressful day. John – who had been at work in the City, under pressure from his demanding boss and exhausted by the commute – always thought it was him. Jane – who had been at home with the children all day and trying to manage the house, all the while trying to study for an Open University degree – always thought it was her.
John and Jane were clearly suffering. What I noticed, was that when one of them was speaking, the other wasn’t listening.
Whilst one partner was supposed to be listening to the other, they were in fact just waiting for the other to finish speaking, all the while thinking about their own response. This meant that they weren’t really communicating at all! It’s no wonder that they would then get more and more frustrated until boiling point, where they would either shout at each other, or one of them would storm out.
John and Jane had reached the point where they would avoid raising issues with each other altogether, for fear of ending up in a blazing row. They had stopped connecting.
Couples often seek help for intimacy issues, and yet often the cause is that they simply aren’t communicating effectively. Most couples will not want to be intimate with each other if the rest of the relationship has begun to feel like a constant battle.
I always start by telling couples that the key to intimacy lies with one incredibly powerful skill – communication. I tell them to think of communication as the bridge linking them to each other. Sometimes, someone has to show you how to build and maintain that bridge. Critically, it is a two-person job, and part and parcel of that process is compassionate conflict resolution.
Why do we struggle with communication so much?
Two main reasons.
1) It’s all about perspective
- We all have our own, unique way of experiencing and interpreting the World around us. The way we relate to the World and others is shaped by our past, our environment, our experiences, our childhood. All of these factors help to create the shape and “colour” of our “lens”. We each form our own, unique “lens” that we view the World through. We create rules for ourselves, others people, and the World, based on the colour of the lens that we look through. For example, from your own lens, you might view yourself as worthy of love, you might view your World as a safe place, you might believe that other people are generally trustworthy. Or you might not. Whatever your experience, your lens often makes complete sense to you. It is your
This is where many couples become stuck.
The problem is NOT that your lens is one colour and your partner’s is another. In fact this is entirely normal and unavoidable. The problem is when you don’t realise it.
Perhaps you don’t even have an awareness of your own lens. All you know is, from your perspective – “this is the way the world is”, “this is what’s important”, “this is the way we do things”. So you ASSUME your partner has the same colour lens as you. And your partner assumes that you have the same colour lens as them. When you argue, unconsciously you are both trying to convince each other that YOUR lens is the correct colour, and your partner’s is just wrong.
Because you are not consciously aware of this, and because you are so invested in your own lens, you really struggle to understand why your partner doesn’t get why you are so upset, why they aren’t finding the same things as important as you, why they are not living by YOUR rules – so you assume that maybe they just don’t care.
2) We all have individual conflict styles
- Ask yourself this. When you and your partner argue, do you find that you tend to each react in the same ways each time? For example, do you find that you tend to get upset easily, whilst your partner gets angry? Or do you become intensely anxious whilst your partner withdraws? Are you the stubborn one that holds grudges? Who is it that normally starts the arguments, and are they often over the same issues?
This is all down to something that I call your Elemental Conflict Styles.
Conflict is a natural, unavoidable part of life. Without it, nothing would change. In nature, everything moves, and when that happens, we will run into each other. Think about thunderstorms, or forest fires. Both are caused by conflicting elements. But both have positive effects on the environment.
Think how fresh it feels after a good thunderstorm and downpour – how it always feels like that’s exactly what was needed to literally clear the air. Forest fires might seem alarming but they form a very important role in renewing the ecosystem. It’s nature’s way of balancing things.
As part of Nature ourselves, we all contain the elements of Air, Earth, Fire and Water. And these elements are never more present than when we are facing conflict. In fact, they tend to determine our conflict styles.
Most of us tend to have one or two dominant elements in our conflict styles. And when one or more conflict styles are dominant, that’s when we can lose balance. This is particularly true when your dominant elemental conflict style clashes with your partner’s.
When things get out of balance in relationships, conflict can escalate into an argument. An argument is a very different entity than conflict, because once things have escalated that far, we can easily let our emotions and thoughts become unstable, and lose our natural harmony.
How do I work with couples like John and Jane to help them manage conflict through improved communication?
- I taught John and Jane them how to understand their own, and each-others’, lenses, so that even if they disagreed with each other, they were able to understand, and empathise with, each other.
- I taught John and Jane to recognise their individual, elemental conflict styles. By each understanding their own dominant elemental conflict style, and that of each-others’, they could start to understand themselves and each-other more, by making the unconscious conscious. And when that happened? They were able to work with it and stop arguing! John and Jane started to embrace conflict in a balanced way and began to see it as an opportunity for growth and change!
- I taught John and Jane to recognise their own, and each other’s, triggers, so that they could deal with tension effectively before things escalated.
- They both gained an understanding of how the brain worked in a conflict situation, so that Jane could understand why she was unable to see John’s point of view during an argument.
- I gave them the tools to enable them to de-escalate an argument once it had already started.
- Crucially, I gave them the techniques and principles needed for effective communication, so that they felt confident enough to raise issues with each other, and were able to be honest without worrying that the other would become defensive.
Once they were able to have deeper conversations, they were able to make room for addressing the underlying issues in the relationship. As they began to communicate in a positive way, they were both able to rebuild trust, confidence, and even self-esteem. Naturally, intimacy followed.
I am happy to say that 6 months on, their communication has vastly improved and they feel it has transformed their relationship.
If you can relate to John and Jane, and feel that you and your partner struggle with communication, try the following:
- Ask your partner to read this post, as a way of initiating a discussion about the communication in your relationship.
- Try to identify whether you tend to see things a certain way quite often. For example, if your lens is coloured with the belief that people are untrustworthy, you might notice that you are often viewing the situation through a lens of suspicion, rather than giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself; “If I were in my partner’s shoes, how might I be viewing the situation if I were them?”
- Think about your own personality type, and which of the four elements of air, earth, fire and water, might best describe you in a conflict situation. Think about why – what its it about that element that you can relate to? And then think about how this compares with your partner.
Need my help? Then my brand new, FREE, soon to be released, Elemental Conflict Style Quiz is for you!
Register now to be one of the first to take it!
If you’re struggling with conflict in your relationship, you now have the opportunity to learn more about why, by discovering your own Elemental Conflict Style, and taking a look in-depth at what that means for your relationship!
Which one will you be?
You don’t have to continue to repeat the same patterns with each other. You have the ability to make powerful changes in your relationship if you are willing to invest the time and energy.
Think of it as a way of identifying the problem, so that you can then work on it.
It’s not that one elemental conflict style is more desirable than another. Rather, the aim is to have a healthy emotional balance through access to all of these elements when needed. There should be harmony between them.
By understanding your dominant elemental conflict style, and that of your partner’s, like John and Jane, you can start to understand yourself and your partner more, by making the unconscious conscious. And when that happens? You can work with it and stop arguing! You can embrace conflict in a balanced way and see it as an opportunity for growth and change!
Which one are you?
Register below to be one of the first to take your FREE quiz!
If you’d like any further, or have anything else that you would like help with, I would be delighted to help. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I can’t wait to hear from you!
*Names and identifying features have been changed to protect confidentiality.