What do you do when communication turns to conflict, over and over and over and over?
Married and unmarried relationship couples attempt to communicate all the time. Sometimes those conversations are mutually enjoyable, nurturing, supportive and fun. Other times they turn into conflict leaving one or both partners feeling frustrated. This feeling can last for a short period. The couple can repair the negative feelings and get back to a loving connection pretty rapidly. Still, other couples don’t get over the negative emotions. Over time, the unresolved feelings can lead to more distance and disconnection, and eventually and break up or divorce.
Couples who navigate the communication to conflict cycle successfully found a way to work through their issues in a win/win way. Couples who get stuck in conflict don’t. They get bogged down in interacting with each other in a way that is hurtful. Sometimes they say and do things to each other cannot be taken back. In other words, they make mistakes when they attempt to talk to each other. Frustrating and angry feelings are triggered and prevail.
There are common mistakes most couples make when couples find themselves in the communication to conflict cycle. We have illustrated an example with a couple representing what we mean. This couple is not one know personally, nor a couple we have ever provided consulting. They are a composite of any couple anywhere who make these mistakes. We have provided a typical conversation this couple has when communication breaks down. See if you can recognize the communication mistakes they are making.
We’ll call this couple, “George and Jennifer.” Their interaction is an example of what often happens when well-meaning people have positive intentions that instantly flips into a heated argument.
Here’s a snippet of what George and Jennifer were saying to each other. See if you can recognize the mistakes they were making. The scenario goes like this:
It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny and crisp Saturday morning. Jennifer has been up since 8 a.m. She’s dressed for the day, eager to start her routine of errands so she can get back in time to take a nap before she and George go out on a Saturday evening date. She’s been looking forward to them spending this time together all week.
George is still sleeping. He has agreed the night before to be up by 8:00 a.m. so he could take care of a couple of the things he wanted to do by 9 AM before breakfast. Jennifer is pleased because she can now plan her morning accordingly.
Jennifer is determined to have a special hot breakfast ready promptly at 9 AM. So, between 8:15 AM, and 9:00 AM, thinking she’s being helpful as well as honoring the time George said he would be up, she has been back to the bedroom three times to wake him up to let him know that breakfast will be ready at 9 AM. And three times he promptly tells her that he’s getting up, but he goes back to sleep. At 9 AM, the hot breakfast is on the table that has been beautifully set. You see, for Jennifer, this is one way to build up excitement for the date they will be having later that evening.
Finally, at 10:00 AM, George gets up and while still in a sleepy state, rubbing his eyes and yawning, he strolls into the kitchen and sits down. He knows why Jennifer kept coming back to the bedroom to wake him up and had no problem with that. However, what he didn’t know is that for an hour Jennifer has been trying to keep everything warm for him so that they could have this nice breakfast together before she goes on her errands. Well, by 10 AM, the oatmeal is overcooked, the eggs are a rubbery texture, the toast is cold. The only breakfast items that are the right temperature are the bacon and the coffee.
The only thing on George’s mind as he sits down at the table is how delicious everything looks and how much he is looking forward to eating this great food. So, the first words out of his mouth are: “Good morning, gorgeous this is quite a spread you’ve prepared. Everything looks great! Thank you!
Jennifer is silent. Somewhat surprised and confused, George waits a few moments and then asks, “What’s wrong hon?”
Jennifer replies back, “What do you mean, what’s wrong?” She’s defiant by now. “You saunter in here one hour after the food is prepared; and, after you had kept telling me, you were coming to the table. I tried to keep everything warm, but now, everything is overcooked, and breakfast is ruined. You are so inconsiderate. I was trying to do something special for us, and you messed it all up.”
George hurls back, “Here we go again. You are always criticizing me for the least little thing that I do. I’m tired of this. You…” Before he could finish his sentence, Jennifer jumps in and says, before he completes the sentence, “Oh, yeah? This is all about you again. Making this all about me and not taking any responsibility for what you did that made me so angry.” “No,” George says, “you’ve got it all wrong. If you would just stop harassing and nagging me…,” then he gets cut off again.
They go back and forth for what seems like an hour, so it’s now 11 a.m. Neither George nor Jennifer has an appetite to eat anything at this point. George slams his fork down on the table and storms back to the bedroom, feeling furious. Jennifer instantly clears the table and throws the breakfast down the garbage disposal. 10 minutes later she leaves the house in a huff. A low-level rage is burning within as she takes care of her errands.
When she returns home a few hours later, both she and George are still angry and give each other the silent treatment. They are both feeling distant and disconnected, waiting for the other one to apologize. Date night canceled.
This is a common scenario for George and Jennifer. Different issue, same scenario, same communication mistakes… same communication to conflict cycle.
Can you identify at least three mistakes they were making during their communication breakdown?
Here’s what we noticed:
Three Common Communication to Conflict Mistakes
The first mistake is both parties were criticizing blaming each other. That never works because criticism often begets more criticism. Criticism is often experienced as an attack.
The second mistake was they kept interrupting each other. This is because each person is mired in preparing their defense and can’t hear what the other is saying.
The third mistake is since they don’t know how to approach their upset differently, in their frustration, at the end of the day, while still angry, they avoid each other with the silent treatment.
Other things were going on, too, but those were the three key ones that we identified. Why is that a problem? It is a problem because when any two people go into a defensive mode by attacking, interrupting, criticizing, blaming and shaming in the moment. Both tend to feel like victims. There is no room to hear and understand the other person and their perspective.
Our question to you is why is this a problem?
One of the reasons that this is a problem is because both George and Jennifer are committed to defending themselves, instead of understanding each other and the other person’s vantage point. When people feel attacked, they start interrupting each other, criticizing and blaming each other. When this is happening, they become flooded with negative feelings, which is a signal to the most primitive part of the brain that there’s a threat.
When that happens, each person is wired to go into a defensive mode to survive the moment of frustration. Both partners become self-absorbed and begin to protect themselves with their reaction to survive the moment. The goal is to be right and to make sure that the other person is wrong. The other goal is to win the argument. There’s tunnel vision, and the focus is on the winning, and there are blind spots to how each partner is negatively impacting the other. In other words, the reaction of both contributes to communication breakdown in ways which may cause pain.