Every relationship has it’s rough spots. But when conflicts arise time and again, its time to solve the source once and for all -- and your reactions may surprise you. As Dr. Charlotte Kasl uncovers in her spiritual guide to marriage, If the Buddha Married, these conflicts could be remnants from your past relationships - or even your childhood. Learn how to recognize this problem pattern and move beyond these emotional hurdles in seven simple steps.
While life will always hand us problems to solve, there are what I call "counterfeit conflicts" that don't have much to do with what's really going on in present time. Throughout the dance of relationship, it's important to sort out ego-based reactions from childhood that need our individual attention, as opposed to true conflicts in the present that need us to negotiate our differences.
In troubled couples, people often start fights or create dramas in order to avoid their fear and emptiness. This is extremely common when there are active addictions or dependency in the relationship. We fight over red-herring issues and focus on our partner instead of focusing on ourselves. A man keeps urging his wife to lose weight and says he can't be sexually attracted unless she does, but doesn't realize he plays a part in his own sexual arousal.
The Role of Childhood Trauma: Another cause of counterfeit conflict is when people, having adopted the belief that the world is hostile, are hyper-alert to any possibility of rejection or insensitivity, and repeatedly pounce on their partner with claims that he or she is mean, uncaring and so on. This common distortion of reality leads us to live in fear and give our power to our partner. We need to ask ourselves repeatedly, "What was really said?" How did I filter it through my own internal belief system?" Of course, this implies that we ask ourselves, "What is my internal belief system about the world?" about other people's intentions.
Counterfeit conflicts are the result of developmentally stuck places from childhood. Both people are reacting out of hardwired nervous system responses to earlier hurt, trauma, or neglect. When we yell at our partner for being late, it's a displaced scream at a mother who was unreliable. We panic when our partner withdraws and rushes in to "find out what's wrong" or "get him to talk." When I've helped people track the source of these eruptions of emotions, we inevitably find the roots in childhood losses, trauma, or neglect that resulted in beliefs of being unlovable, unseen, or inadequate.
For example, Mary felt panic whenever her partner withdrew. We traced it back to a time when, as a little girl, she found her mother lying on the couch, passed out from drinking. Mary thought she was dead. As we cleared this old trauma, she no longer had a panic reaction when her husband withdrew. She didn't like it, but she could express her feelings as an adult, saying, "I don't like it when you blank out and refuse to talk." She could then go about her day without obsessing about it.
Couples who find themselves in repetitive fights that reflect childlike states -- "Don't tell me what to do," "Don't leave me" -- often need individual psychotherapy to clear the source of these automatic reactions. Rumi writes, "Show me the way to the ocean, break these small containers." With that sentiment in mind, here are some steps to help us break free of the small containers that keep us stuck in repetitive counterfeit arguments.
7 Exercises to End Counterfeit Conflicts: (Ground rule: Keep the focus on yourself and do not blame your partner.)
1. Notice that it is a repetitive argument and acknowledge this to each other. Agree you want to do something different.
2. Ask yourself, "How old do I feel in this argument? Very young? Adolescent?" Tell your partner about this.
3. Ask yourself, "What are we really arguing about?" Explore this with your partner. Usually, there's an undercurrent of not feeling loved, valued, noticed, or respected that needs to be addressed.
4. Tune in to your feelings and peel them back to see if there's another one underneath. Keep peeling back until you reach a place that feels very real to you. This may take practice. Tell your partner about your experience with this. When a person can say, "I feel lonely when you spend so much time away," rather than, "You are so insensitive to my needs," we take the conversation to a quieter, deeper level of vulnerability. It is from this place that people usually can hear each other.
5. Become aware of what you are truly wanting and needing from your partner, and let him know.
6. Talk about whatever you are willing to do in response to your partner's request. Make a concrete plan; don't use vague language such as: "I'll help you around the house" or "I'll respect you more." Spell it out. "I'll vacuum Monday night when you're out." "I'll shop and cook on Saturday." "I promise to stop calling you lazy or clumsy when I'm frustrated."
7. Voice your appreciation for your partner. Again, be specific.
Following these steps may help you crack your shell and feel more expansive in your relationship. Other possible avenues of help are to talk with a friend, be in a support group, read books on relationships or spirituality, or seek counseling. You can also talk with friends. Just having contact with a wide range of people increases the odds that someone will say something helpful about your situation or open your mind to new perspective.
From If the Buddha Married, copyright © Charlotte Davis Kasl, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Pengui USA, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.