Battlefield or Playground? Transforming conflict into self-knowledge

You cringe every time his fork scrapes the plate. You’ve stopped counting the number of Amazon packages that arrive for her each week. She talks too loud on the phone. He forgets important events. The list can go on and on as the resentments pile up over the years. If left unaddressed, these petty irritations can create real barriers to communication — and even contribute to divorce. Perhaps without knowing it, you’ve placed conditions on your commitment and the space between your needs and his (or hers) grows deeper and wider, creating dissatisfaction. When you’re at odds with your partner, intimate relationships can feel like a war zone with a take no prisoners policy.

But there is another perspective. What if those trigger points could be used to learn something about yourself? Instead of finding fault in your mate (whether still married or not), what if you used the areas of conflict as a means for self-discernment and personal growth? Instead of becoming furious at your soon-to-be-ex, what if you became curious about yourself? With this mindful approach, you could transform a would-be battlefield into a playground for self-development.

Before you say that’s impossible, take a peek at the best-selling book Getting the Love You Want by psychologist and relationship expert Harville Hendrix. Initially published in 1988 and still relevant today, Hendrix outlines a radically different way of looking at our significant others’ behaviors and how they trigger emotional responses in us. He contends that with a different perspective, we can transform heated arguments into useful information. When we can drop the habit of reacting to criticism or becoming critical and turn the spotlight on ourselves, not only can we diffuse the conflict, we can discover real clues to our overall unhappiness. To do this, Hendrix outlines four core assumptions we have to be willing to make:

  1. Your partner’s criticisms have some basis in reality.
  2. Repetitious emotional criticisms of your partner may be disguised statements of your own unmet needs.
  3. Repetitive emotional criticisms of your partner may be accurate descriptions of your own character flaws or shortcomings.
  4. Your criticisms of your partner may help you identify your own “lost self” (those aspects of your nature that have been repressed because they were so strongly criticized in youth).

In short, when a specific behavior repeatedly triggers a negative response in you, there is a reason that is relevant to your own behavior or beliefs. Observing those reactions and examining what’s behind them can help you resolve personal issues. Even if your current relationship cannot be mended, observing these trigger points can help you to adopt more loving and compassionate responses to yourself and any future partner.

This approach is not easy, but there are excellent resources provided by Hendrix. You may want to work with a skilled relationship therapist who can help you work through relationship difficulties. No matter the state of your union, detachment, curiosity, and a sense of humor are all good qualities to bring to the table as you uncouple. When you can look at your divorce as a chance to learn more about yourself, you may realize that even a loss can become a life-long gain.