Conflict in committed relationships is ubiquitous. All manner of resolution and management skills are at our disposal, but perhaps the one element we focus on the least is conflict perspective. When in conflict, regardless with whom, three distinct perspectives are possible.
One, we can view the situation from only our own perspective. Two, our focus can be on only our partner’s role and behavior. Three, we can view the conflict from above, so to speak. From that perch we afford ourselves a view of the pattern, our own role in it as well as our partner’s, and, perhaps most important of all, we can see how the pattern we are part of is headed in an ineffective and unproductive direction. It’s like an aerial view of your home town. You cannot see the entire town from just your own street corner. Likewise, you cannot see the whole conflict from your position exclusively.
In position one, our own narrow focused perspective tends to see our partner as the source of the problem. This view is generally loaded with blame, either implied or explicit. From the my-perspective-only position, it is too easy to be a bull in a china shop.
Typically, when you view a conflict from this vantage point, you believe you are right, and your partner is wrong. The binary right-wrong orientation leads to one or the other of you devising ways to win the argument, which inevitably produces mutual defensiveness. If you “win” the argument, you also lose due to the fact that the partner who “loses” tends to become distant–from YOU! Most people do not feel closer to their distant partner. Obviously, that does not promote connection and intimacy.
Position two, approaching the problem from your partner’s perspective, may often be problematic. On the one hand, your partner will appreciate your recognition of their position. And that’s a good thing. On the other hand, if you see the problem only from your partner’s perspective, you are likely diverted from yourself. This is important on two accounts: first, your part of the pattern is a big piece of the puzzle you are both attempting to solve, so you really ought to know what your piece looks like if you want to solve the puzzle; second, the odds for selling yourself out go way up when you attend only to your partner’s perspective because you fail to give voice or attention to your own perspective of the problem and pattern.
In perspective three, each party clearly views the conflict from above, and is able to see the pattern and your respective roles. From above, you have the best seats in the house! From there you can take in all the action! From there, you can make decisions that you cannot possibly make from positions one or two.
One decision you can make is to pull the reins in on those behaviors that make it unsafe for your partner to speak honestly. What does that look like? That is when you decide not to call your partner a name when your frustrated or angry. Instead, you decide to take responsibility for your anger or frustration and talk about it, rather than act it out. It means using words that are always easy to hear, or turning the volume knob down instead of yelling. It means doing what’s powerful, not what’s overpowering. (More on this in an upcoming post).
From the penthouse each of you can bask in conflict luxury as you realize that breaking a painful recurring pattern is more productive than being right! From above you can appreciate that this is a team effort, but this time, your both on the same team! It’s as if you’re looking down on a maze, and you are each helping the other navigate through the various passageways, i.e. behavioral trouble spots you each provide, until you get from stressed to calm, distant to close. Sound corny? It is, but it works.
The view from above allows for compassion and empathy to punctuate the pain you each feel. The overview perspective has built in to it the desire each of you possess to see yourself and your partner realistically. In short, the view-from-above perspective promotes honesty, thereby building trust.
Operating from the overview perspective takes practice, patience and persistence, as it is not the easiest of the three perspectives because it feels very risky. Like many difficult tasks, however, the rewards are consistent with your effort.
Next time you and yours are faced with one of those stressful moments, see the pattern, break the pattern. Try the following: Before you dive in to the issue de jour, start by inviting each other to the overview. Describe what you see from your perspective–especially what you see in yourself that is making the pattern you are trying to break so difficult to alter. After all, it’s not as if your partner doesn’t see your behavior! Next, listen to the overview your partner provides while NOT discounting it. Last, recap what you hear, ask for clarification when necessary, and then ask a lot of curiosity based questions.
Wishing you a satisfying relationsip,
Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT ©2010
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