Relationship conflict - what can you do about it?

Guy

Guy

Ever wondered why conflicts in your marriage are so painful?

Blame the Attachment brain. To understand relationship conflict we need to go deep into the basement of your brain where our story begins.

Once upon a time, around the age of 8 months you realised that you were alone in the world and were totally dependant on another human being for your survival.  Mother nature equipped you with an essential biological mechanism: protest to gain closeness to your caretaker. This mechanism is called Attachment. Attachment aims to keep you safe. Without the presence of your caretaker you wouldn’t be able to cope. Separation anxiety during those years is excruciating. You would have died if your caretaker was not there! In a healthy attachment process you gradually come to realise that you are not going to be abandoned. You develop trust and you feel secure. Your caretaker is always there regardless of your misbehaviours.

Studies of the relationship brain in last 30 years have helped us understand how this same Attachment mechanism plays a role in romantic relationships. Emotionally, you ‘use’ your partner in a similar way to how you ‘used’ your parents:

  1. maintain emotional and physical closeness
  2. reach out at times of distress  
  3. miss partner when you are apart.
  4. count on partner to be there for you when you explore the world.
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As you can see, security is the most crucial aspect of the attachment mechanism. It means that you are wired to need the support and care from another human being. You expect partner to be there unconditionally, to never abandon you. Yet, in most cases, your partner is not as safe as your parents were.

During conflict, the fear of losing connection may be provoked. For the Attachment part of your brain this is perceived as a threat for your very survival. You don’t remember the times you were dependant and vulnerable but your body does. You may feel a strange emotional flood of panic or anger. You are left puzzled by your over-reaction.    

As a needy vulnerable child you likely protested with rage when left alone but as an adult you are expected to respond from the ‘wise part’ in your brain. This is quite a challenge for many people.

As a rural couple, and particularly if you live remotely and in an isolated area, you will naturally tend to rely more on your spouse. This may exacerbate the experience of panic during conflicts

What can you do about it?

For a start, accept the fact that your partner holds a great deal of power over you. Romantic relationship confronts your fears and your dependency needs. Don’t hate your partner for that.  It is part of being human. 

You may also want to develop awareness and self-understanding of your emotional reactions. Explore if some of your panic stems from early childhood experiences of rejection, shame, abuse or abandonment.  

Regardless of the origin of your emotional reactions you want to make sure that you never leave injuries during conflict. Stay respectful and focus on the issue not the person. This is a hallmark of a long-term satisfying relationship.

Your best strategy

But your best way to reduce the level of anxiety during conflicts is to invest in enhancing connection. Why? Because this will result in increased sense of security. The more relationship is secure the more partners are open, gentle and flexible while handling their differences.

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To maintain your closeness you both need to be WILLING to invest time and energy. It will come from the will, not from the ‘I feel like…i don’t feel like…’.  The demands of work and childrearing can be so draining that you need clear intention and will to balance it. When you neglect the relationship,  it is like expecting the tree to bear fruit without watering and fertilising. 

So, go ahead and connect to your partner. Connect  physically through touch and sex, connect emotionally by sharing your feelings and needs, connect socially by engaging in activities you both enjoy and connect spiritually by engaging in communal activities that matter to you the most. 

And if you need to heal first before you can jump start the connection, consider meeting with one of our counsellors for video counselling sessions.  It is super easy and convenient – contact us today to request a session. 

About the author:

Guy is a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience helping people with relationship issues.

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