For most couples, conflict involves a gradual—or not so gradual—escalation of hostilities. But there is another way to dance through our love, and it contains some pretty “unexpected” steps…
I’m a mixture of several stubborn-blooded ethnicities, including Irish and German. My wife is mostly Portuguese, so her blood tends to run a little hot.
I have to admit, when we were first married, we had no idea what to do with all of our hardheaded energy.
In my eBook, I describe one fight that ended with a door slammed so hard it cracked right out of the plaster wall. My wife and I were experts at “negative escalation” of conflict. Most people are.
The Dance to Divorce
Negative escalation is a cold, clinical term describing the very hot kind of one-upmanship that happens during most conflict, both within marriage and without:
You yell—I yell louder.
You put up walls—I lay my walls with brick and mortar.
You insult—I sling back an even more painful zinger—So you insult my mother—So I insult the way you mother our children. And so on.
Each iteration of the conflict is like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Except it’s the ladder of vengeance, and when you finally reach the top and fall off you don’t bust your skull—you break a heart or two.
But here’s the really counterintuitive and disturbing fact revealed by decades of “sequential analysis” research: positive escalation is also damaging to marriages. That is, couples who engage in a quid pro quo exchange of positive behaviors also report less satisfying relationships.
When our behavior in marriage is dependent or contingent upon what has been done to us—regardless of whether that behavior is positive or negative—it results in the destruction of relationship.
In high-conflict marriages, we obliterate our love with hostility and anger. In polite marriages, we smile our way into saccharine staleness. It takes two to tango—two people executing all the expected, eye-for-an-eye steps in relationship—and we can dance ourselves all the way into divorce.
Love is In the Unexpected
It takes two to tango. But the the good news is, it only takes one to love. The very same marital research has revealed negative escalation can be disrupted when just one partner chooses to do something different and new.
As it turns out, love is doing the unexpected. Love is refusing to read from the script. It’s refusing to play the usual games. Love is laughing at yourself when you’re supposed to be yelling at your partner. Love is snuggling in when you would normally be choosing a night on the couch over a night in the bed. Love is a cup of coffee on the bedside table the morning after a big fight. Love is a surprise, and it only takes one.
And sometimes, the biggest surprise of all is when we respond with empathy instead of a retort.
Transforming Conflict into Common Ground
Empathy is a place of common ground where we understand the interior landscape of the other because we feel it, too. I know what you’re wondering: How in the world can we find that kind of common ground when we’re cut and bleeding from the daggers being thrown at us?
The answer is deceptively simple but painfully hard: the daggers lay the foundation for common ground. When our partner is hurting, they behave in ways to make us feel exactly the hurt they are feeling. They want us to “know what it feels like.”
I see it happen every day in marital therapy: Husband hurls an insult and wife gets hurt. I stop the interaction and I ask the wife how she feels and she says, “I feel hurt and alone.” And the angry husband fires back, “Well, that’s exactly how I feel.” They often look at me in stunned disbelief when I say, “Good, now you are both feeling the same thing. You can make that the common ground where you meet and have real empathy for each other. Or you can keep fighting. The choice is yours.”
And the truth is, it is up to each spouse. Either partner can be the one to do the radically unexpected—to transform that hurt into a place of empathy, to put down the verbal weapon that will move the conflict to the next rung of the vengeance ladder and instead to take a step down.
The surface of our conflict is loud, so we rarely become aware of the quiet and shared emotions beneath the surface. The gentle, vulnerable emotions whisper instead of screaming. They sob instead of shouting. They feel hurt instead of spreading hurt. They go completely unnoticed, and yet they are the common ground in which we can all exist together, look each other in the eye, and say, “Yeah, me too.”
Climbing a New Kind of Ladder
Our best research has revealed that love thrives when we stop giving our spouses what they deserve and start giving them the unexpected embrace of all that they are—when we give them, in a word, grace.
Ironically, in this regard, our scientists sound a lot like some of our theologians.
Let’s be still and quiet, and let’s listen for the pain beneath our anger. And when we finally notice the quiet common ground beneath the surface of our conflict, let’s go there. Let’s put words to it. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s connect within it.
And let’s start climbing an entirely different kind of ladder together.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.