Almost all of the conflict resolution literature is about conflict between
groups. This includes labor management issues, governmental issues, armed
conflict, and war. Some material in the literature is about addressing marital
conflict or other interpersonal issues between only two people. Most of this is
about techniques for resolving conflict by improving communication skills. These
include learning to use "I" statements, doing active listening, and taking "time
outs" when the intensity of the conflict is too great.
These are all helpful tools and I support and teach them myself. But they are
all geared toward working with the couple to teach them skills they can both use
to address the mutual responsibility they have for the problems in the
relationship. That is not the context in which I found myself working for much
of my career as a psychotherapist.
Yes, I work with people in high conflict relationships. But there is another important dynamic at work. I often work with men and women who are perpetrators of violence against their partners or other loved ones. Doing traditional couples work with them is impossible for legal reasons but would not be safe in any case. Being forced to work with only one party to the relationship, and for that to be, in most cases, the person who had the most power physically and financially, meant that I was continually confronting the same set of issues. He was trying to get her to change when all he had to do to repair the relationship was to change his own behavior.
What this brought home to me over and over was the prevalence of a couple of cognitive distortions which make it seem impossible to resolve certain persistent conflicts. One of these is the belief that we can make others change and the other is the belief that the only way we can resolve conflict is for the other to be different. This line of thought says that it is both possible and necessary for me to make the other be different...to make them make the choices I want them to make.
On the face of it, nearly all of us know that we can't make others be who we want them to be. Even with our children we can't seem to make them do what we want, but with our spouses or colleagues at work it is not only impossible but inappropriate to the relationship. We all know this. But this knowledge doesn't stop us from trying.
There are good reasons for this. Most especially we become aware of the presence of a conflict precisely because the other is not doing what I expect or what I think I have a right to experience. The other isn't doing what the other "should" do. Obviously the way to resolve the conflict is to get the other to change.
One particularly vivid example of this arrived in my consulting room in the person of Gary. Gary was a successful businessman and community leader who was in a second marriage which was rapidly coming to an end. Though he very much loved Jennifer he was also very scared and angry and had given her an ultimatum. Either she cleaned up her behavior or in three months he would divorce her.
Gary had good reason to be upset. Jennifer had to travel for her work. She would get lonely when she traveled. She would go to the hotel bar, get drunk, and end up in bed with someone she had just met. Gary knew that she didn't love these guys but he couldn't tolerate this behavior and unless she got it under control, their marriage was over.
But Gary loved Jennifer and wanted to be with her. He knew she was not happy with herself and he was hoping she would be scared enough about losing him that she would address her acting out with alcohol and sex. The problem was, his approach wasn't working. It seemed the more he tried to make her do what he knew was the right thing, not only for himself but for her, the more she seemed depressed and felt worthless. The lower her self-esteem, the more she acted out. Gary could see that he was creating the opposite of what he wanted and needed.
Gary resisted looking at what he could do the change himself. He wasn't the one who was acting badly. He had not been abusive to her outside of being loud about his anger and hurt. She was the one who was abusing him.
He was considering writing a letter to everyone they knew to tell them about Jennifer's behavior in order to shame her into changing. I let him know that I thought that was a seriously bad idea. He thought so too, but he was desperate.
Gary is smart and dedicated and he is willing to look critically at his own behavior. These factors work in his favor. Before the three months were up he had rescinded the ultimatum and he began instead to work at creating the relationship that he wanted to have with Jennifer. While from time to time he would try to get her to change, he would catch himself and let go.
He told her how he felt. He thanked her for her honesty. He consulted with her about what he might be able to do that would help her address the behavior she didn't like. They set up ways to stay emotionally connected when she traveled.
She became able to talk to him about her feelings and they discovered that she was terribly afraid that she wasn't loved and couldn't be loved by any man. When she was away from Gary she got scared. These feelings were like when she was as a little girl and her dad left her mom and in the process abandoned her. When these feelings came up, Jennifer sought the comfort of any man she could find. But once she could talk about the feelings with Gary, he became the man whose love reassured her.
When he was angry and threatening to leave, he had been the man who reminded her that she was unlovable and his ultimatum only made it harder for her to not act out. Now that he was creating openness and honesty he became the man who supported her healing. He was even able to ask her to tell him when she began to feel shamed or controlled by him as he knew that would work against his own interests.
One of the primary reasons Creative Conflict Resolution is so effective is that it helps us let go of ways of understanding the problem that create the problem or make it worse, and replaces those ways of understanding with perspectives that support actions that actually create what we need. Gary couldn't see a solution that didn't include Jennifer changing so he assumed he would have to make her change. When he discovered that he could simply change himself--which, while simple, is certainly not easy--he was able to create the qualities that were missing for him in the relationship and, at the same time, create what Jennifer needed.
They remain happily and securely married now five years after Gary first came to see me.