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How did we get here? A snapshot of family conflict

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

"Conflict is natural and inevitable, and it has functional, positive aspects" write psychologists dr. John Gottman and dr. Julie Gottman in The Natural Principles of Love. They believe that not resolving, but managing conflict is beneficial as conflict gives information about our partner’s emotional world. In "the love lab" installed at the University of Washington, Gottman and Gottman observed the effects of daily routine and even those of happy events on volunteers. Among other findings, they discovered that within three years of the arrival of the first child, two thirds of couples fall into marital dissatisfaction and hostility [p.11]. Based on systematic longitudinal and observational research, Gottman and Gottman identified three types of conflict: current conflicts, past emotional injuries and perpetual conflicts. Two thirds of couples' conflicts concern perpetual subjects on which spouses may never agree (p. 18). Differences in personality or needs might explain perpetual conflicts for even after fifty years of marriage, one spouse may usually be late and the other may want to arrive early. Gottman and Gottman then propose "three conflict blueprints that make conflict more constructive" which include tools, skill building and creating shared meaning.

In her popular books, Love Sense, Hold Me Tight, and my favourite, Created for Connection, (with Kenneth Sanderfer), psychologist dr. Sue Johnson, demonstrates that there is something more important than the "what" and the "how". In her view, key questions underlie disputes over money, household tasks, children’s education or time spent on social media. Couples test their connection by asking "security questions" at all times: Are you here for me? Can I count on you? Can I trust you? If the answer is delayed or perceived as negative, the fear of losing the relationship throws a person out of balance. Johnson quotes magnetic resonance imaging studies confirming that rejection and exclusion trigger circuits in an area of the brain that is also involved in physical pain. This fear of rejection prevents some of us from opening up and asking for what we need from our significant other.

Instead, spouses try other strategies to reconnect. They engage in dialogues that lead to patterns of conflict, such as attack-attack, attack-withdraw and withdraw-withdraw. Dr Johnson explains that in an attack-withdraw pattern, Mary will push hard for an answer, for any answer will mean that the connection is still there. John feels blamed and incapable to please Mary and withdraws physically and emotionally. This is exactly what Mary wanted to avoid and who now reads withdrawal as abandonment. Her pain prevents her from seeing John's perspective. He might be withdrawing to soothe himself and not to further harm the relationship. And similar to an unconditional loop, criticism, silence and withdrawal repeat with every iteration at an increasing speed. Sometimes, after having tried to reconnect for a long time, both spouses withdraw and slowly lose their emotional ties.

Family mediation provides separated parents or couples contemplating separation with a space to communicate about their conflict, understand it and appease it. As French honorary magistrate and mediator Marc Juston puts it, family mediation is thus "instrumental in determining future relationships within the family between parents and between parents and children."

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