Let’s look at one more aspect of the individual that predicts how well a couple will be able to resolve their conflicts: self-focus. This refers to the commitment and the ability to keep one’s eyes on oneself, even—or especially—when tension are high. When tension escalates, it’s easy to point fingers at one’s partner. It seems clear what he or she is doing to create the tension and what he or she should do to make it stop.
When something my partner has said or done (or not said or done) upsets me, it’s all but counter-intuitive to commit to identifying what I contributed to the issue. Expanding my view of myself; looking at my own level of differentiation; and discovering how unresolved conflicts that predate my relationship with my partner contribute to to the current conflict just isn’t what I’m inclined to do when I’m feeling tension with my partner. Unless I intentionally cultivate the ability to seek a broader, more objective view of both my partner and me, my inclination is to point fingers.
Expectations & Demands
People tend to come to intimate partnership expecting that their strong and beautiful partner will reproduce the good things from their families of origin and will fill in the deficits, too. However, in times of stress and conflict, we find our attention drawn to our partner’s limitations rather to than his or her strengths. When we do this, we can find ourselves automatically blaming our partner for our own limitations or emptiness—projecting our anxiety onto him or her—instead of seeking to understand our role in the conflict. This translates into a demand that our partner change so we can stop feeling crummy, and prevents us from taking responsibility for our own behavior and emotional reactions.
Self-focus, on the other hand requires enough detachment, enough objectivity, to be able to see that we have a variety of responses we can use in any given interaction. Detachment, however, should not be confused with disconnection, which is just another cover for projection. Detachment helps us focus on our part in a relationship process, allowing us to take responsibility for our part in the problem without feeling shame that we’re horrible people.
The level of objectivity that I can maintain in a conflict will determine what stance I take in response to it. Four stances are available: reactive, adaptive, experimental, and functional.
Low objectivity and projection will leave me reactive, a position that is driven by the emotional system rather than the intellectual system. My reactivity may compel me to withdraw and become preoccupied with things or projects, or to offer suggestions on how my partner could get help with his problems, or to to criticize my partner, or to offer helpful suggestions for change. Either way, my focus is on my partner when it should be on me.
The adaptive stance is a form of the reactive stance, in that it’s driven by an emotional process. In this position, the individual decides to grudgingly subordinate his or her desires in favor of the desires of the partner. Self-interest drives this stance, in that the adaptive partner is simply trying to avoid the tension of conflict, rather than face the problems. (Note: Sometimes, family systems language uses the word “adaptive” in different ways, which can be confusing. The adaptive level of functioning, for example, has positive connotations, while an emotionally reactive adaptive stance during conflict carries negative connotations.)
The experimental position is orchestrated by the intellectual system, and represents a thoughtful, non-automatic response to a relationship pattern. The motivation of this stance is to spur exploration of the anxiety driving the conflict. Experiments can involve a behavior change of one of the partners, or an alteration in the typical process of a triangle in the partnership. The one who is compelled to get things resolved as soon as possible may choose to hang back and wait to see what the partner will do, or the one who tends to withdraw can try to remain engaged.
Another experimental position is the “I-position” in which one partner simply and dispassionately states a position on an issue, and is willing to accept the consequences of the position, even in the face of opposition or disapproval. Experiments should be done consciously, as a strategy for learning, or they are likely masked reactions.
The functional position is most common in times of non-stress, and refers to being physically and emotionally open to one’s partner. Communication is open and one assumes responsibility only for one’s own well-being. The partners are able to join together in tasks, and there is flexibility about the amount and type of time spent together. A partner in a functional stance is open to negotiating differences, able to take a strong “I-position” when needed, and willing to swap leadership in areas where the partner is more competent. From this stance, the partners can take and relinquish control as needed.