We’re in yet another conflict with our partner and we’ve done our best to reach a mutually satisfying resolution, but no matter what do we do our partner won’t take “yes” for an answer.

It feels so good when a conflict is smoothly and agreeably resolved. That problem is checked off our list and it’s a big relief from the recent tension. We feel proud that our efforts and skills have worked and that we have reconnected with our partner in a positive way. Harmony and love have been restored and now, together, you and your partner can go back to solving those other problems which life always presents us.

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But not this time.

We hate it when a conflict goes on and on. Even when away from our partner, we obsess over the issues in dispute. We review where we’re “right” and where our partner is “wrong”, and reassure ourselves that we’re “not the bad guy here.” All the while longing for the real, deep relief of a resolution.

But not this time.

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Past experience has taught us the benefits of actually listening to our partner’s concerns and trying to meet their needs. Past PAINFUL experience has powerfully taught us to focus on the issues and NOT on attacking their ego. Past embarrassing experience has taught us that our partner can be right and we can be wrong.

So we’ve approached our partner with a SOFT START UP, no attacks. We made a REQUEST to discuss the issues, instead of a demand. We’ve taken a LEARNING STANCE, being truly open minded to our partner’s concerns, and especially, their feelings. And, we made what we thought was an EFFECTIVE APOLOGY – we set aside our ego and expressed genuine concern for how we had hurt our partner, even if it was accidental.

But our partner remains angry, cold, and distant.

What’s wrong? We tried all the stuff that El Rez guy said would work, but we got no where.

We even agreed to everything our partner asked for (actually demanded, but who’s keeping score?) Yet they continue to refuse to reconcile with us. They’re still P.O.’d with us and not letting go.

What’s going on here? What now??

Some possibilities to consider…

There may be some UNADDRESSED issues, some unexpressed feelings that are creating this impasse. And, there may be a RELUCTANCE TO SURRENDER THE POWER that their anger gives them over us.

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Addressing The Unaddressed, The Unspoken

Conflicts occur not only because there has been some disagreement over issues; often they are the result of the HURT FEELINGS about those issues.

A conflict is a dispute that arouses strong NEGATIVE feelings. Remember, not every disagreement, not every dispute, becomes a conflict; like when we’re playfully arguing over who’s the best basketball player or the best way to prepare a steak. That kind of dispute is fun.

A friendly dispute or disagreement can become a conflict, however, when it slides into attacks on each other’s egos, their sense of worth, competence, intelligence, or their integrity. At those times, resolution requires addressing those hurt feelings – not just reviewing player stats or meat heat chemistry.

But you thought you had carefully and sensitively addressed your partner’s feelings. You thought that you truly understood their sense of hurt, empathized with it, and offered an apology that put their feelings ahead of your pride. And they’re still upset.

What’s happening is that YOU may have done your best but your partner may feel so hurt, so vulnerable, that THEY never fully expressed how they fully felt. Without knowing those deeper issues there was no way for you to address the actual feelings at the heart of the conflict.

Your partner isn’t lying. They might just be afraid.

Unbeknownst to you, the conflict may have touched on a particularly sensitive nerve, one which may have involved an especially vulnerable element of your partner’s identity. And it is a part of themselves they don’t want to reveal because they anticipate more hurt or fear some ridicule for being so touchy about the issue.

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So, because their feelings are kept carefully guarded and are left out of the resolution discussion, because what most needs to be addressed feels most threatening to our partner, the conflict doesn’t get resolved.

What, then, can we do? We may start to feel angry, unappreciated, impatient, and frustrated ourselves. As the pressure within us grows we may explode: “Damn it! I’ve given you everything you asked for, and you’re still being a cold, hostile jerk! It’s time for you to do your share of solving this problem. Why can’t you just let things go and move on?”

That explosion may feel good, briefly, until we realize that we’ve made things worse. Our partner may not have been warm and friendly but at least they weren’t screaming at us. Now the volume is so high we can’t hear ourselves think. Or even worse, the silence is so deep and all encompassing we feel like we are living in a barren, dead world.

Any other options? Before we blow up again (understandable because we’re now starting to feel hurt, too), try another “soft start up.” You can always “drop the bomb” later if this doesn’t work. But remember, it’s hard to recall the bomb once it’s left the bay.

Try: “I’m really confused, and I must admit, I’m frustrated. I’ve tried to give you everything that you asked for, but you’re still upset with me. I don’t know what else to do. Can you give me some suggestions? Is there something else you need from me to resolve this? Is there something else we need to discuss? Is there something else bothering you? I’m willing to work with you on this. I hope you see my efforts have been genuine. Please, tell me what else WE can do to resolve this?”

Hopefully this approach will have made your partner feel safe enough to discuss the vulnerability they’ve been concealing.

If this one effort doesn’t work, realize that it may take a few tries to convince them that they are truly safe. Your patience (understandably running short) can be more powerful than any words that you speak; it shows them that they’re really safe.

Throw the ball into their court and wait.

The Anger Advantage

Another reason our partner may be unwilling to fully resolve a conflict might be the advantages that anger provides.

Anger is an emotion built into us to provide a boost of power and confidence to overcome fear, so we can act to protect ourselves. Staying angry with us might enable our partner to maintain the upper hand. They may remain angry because it says to us, in effect, “I’m still upset with you and you are NOT off the hook yet! You’ve got a lot of repair work to do. Yeah, you’ve given me what I want, but I won’t let down my guard until you PROVE you’re for real; prove to me that I can trust you.”

Staying angry with us might also enable our partner to deny their role in the problem. Anger can say that, “I’m the totally innocent party here. You’re the totally guilty party.” Their anger may let THEM off the hook of their own guilt, keeping us solely to blame. (Does that position sound familiar?

Does it sound anything like your approach when you were allowing your emotions to control your behavior?) They are using their anger to keep us on “our best behavior” – as long as they don’t push us too far. That feels great for them, not so much for us.

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Do we have any options?

Again, remaining calm (admittedly, increasingly hard to do under the circumstances) and refraining from making things worse by making an angry, aggressive outburst of our own, is always a helpful option. At least things don’t revert to open warfare.

Maybe we begin to feel that it’s unfair, that we’re “doing all the work/making all the concessions”. Agreed! That may be so. And that can be very hard for us to do but it can give them the safety they need to let down their guard; to become vulnerable and open up to us about the hurt that most needs to be addressed and healed. It can also show them that they can trust our efforts; that they ARE sincere and won’t end as soon as they become friendly again.

All this can set the tone for future conflicts. Imagine how good it feels to trust that your partner will really try to hear and understand your feelings and concerns. Imagine how much better the relationship will be if that becomes the standard for conflict resolution in your relationship. What you do now not only has an impact on this conflict, but also on those that WILL occur in the future.

NEXT TIME: We’ll look at the notion (incorrect, you will see) that emotions must be excluded from any successful conflict resolution.

Always want to hear you comments:

Written by Tony Johnson is a retired university mental health center psychologist. He has lived, learned and enlarged his happiness in the Costa Ballena for over three years. He has the curiosity of a coati about all things life! These articles are his best shot at answering those “Life Questions”. Hopefully, you will find them informative and useful.

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