The question of conflict comes up in nearly every couples or family counseling session in some form or another. It is mostly the reason people seek counseling in the first place. In our premarried class we talk about how to do conflict well, and how to prevent it from turning ugly. In our current class (our 33rd) we added a new PowerPoint slide entitled “How we measure conflict.” This is our quick assessment that we use in sessions to determine progress in a relationship.
There are three criteria that we use: Frequency, Intensity and Duration.
FREQUENCY – How often do you get into conflict? Is it daily, weekly or even less frequently? I am not talking about mild disagreements like what, when or where to eat. I am talking about the kind where it becomes emotional, eliciting feelings of anger, distress or deeper frustration. Are you able to let the little things go so that the rough spots are the exception, not the rule? Are you able to really let them go and not just stuff them until they eventually erupt?
INTENSITY – How angry or upset or forceful do you get? In a conflict do you really lean in hard or wag your finger at the perceived offender? Or do you emotionally melt down into crying or sobbing? Are you able to stay in control of yourself or do you feel like you will burst if you don’t get it all out or if you are not fully understood? Do you increase in intensity as the time goes on? Do you become rageful or hysterical? Self regulation requires staying away from distressful self talk. I have heard experts use the terms “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing” for this kind of inner conversation.
DURATION – How long do the conflicts last? Are you able to say what you need to say in a succinct manner or do you go on and on for multiple minutes or even longer? Do you corner people and “make them” listen until you are through or exhausted? I have heard stories of conflict that lasted multi-hours, followed by days or even weeks of withdrawal. That level of immaturity is bound to impact a relationship in a very negative way.
We can usually tell the health of a relationship by assessing these factors. When they are on the decrease the relationship is usually getting better (unless both people have emotionally checked out and the end is near.) Interestingly, some couples will rate these measurements in their relationship differently. The difference in perception is usually the result of their earlier family or relationship history. Volatile or avoidant family of origin systems will often cause a skewed perspective. Both aggressive and passive behavior is immature and destructive.
One of our pastors quoted a recent study about marriages that went the distance: less than 5% of the content of their conversations were complaints (negativity). However, when the complaints rose to 10% or more, the relationship was at a high risk of failure. I think that statistic holds well for Nan & me.
So how do you see your relationships? Are these key factors on the decrease in most or all of them?