A few weeks ago, I asked my friend and mentor, Robert Weiss, a question about how addicts (of all types) can healthfully work through conflicts with their spouses and other loved ones. Always the good therapist, Rob emailed me a “Conflict Resolution Agreement” that he sometimes uses in his psychotherapy practice, especially when he’s working with sex and/or love addicts. The principles in the agreement are relatively straightforward and logical, and they certainly seem like common sense. However, addicts (even when they’re in recovery) are not always great with common sense issues, especially when it comes to difficult, possibly heated discussions with loved ones.
Love addicts in particular are often not good at conflict resolution within an intimate partnership. Sometimes they’ve been lying and keeping secrets about their romantic infidelity for so long that being honest, up-front and open to the idea of working through, rather than avoiding, conflicts seems foreign and almost impossible. However, with a few simple guidelines, outlined below, it is not.
- Become Allies
The most important thing when attempting to resolve a conflict is to recognize that you and your partner are not fighting each other, you are fighting the problem, whatever that problem might be. Maybe the problem is one person’s overspending; maybe the problem is a disagreement about religion; maybe the problem is a love-addicted partner’s ongoing romantic infidelity. Whatever the issue, when you and your partner can agree that you are on the same team – the team that wants to make your relationship better – acrimony tends to dissipate, and it becomes much easier to work together for a common goal.
- Set Time Limits
Nothing is harder on relationships than arguments that drag on for hours or even days. Knowing this, it may be a good idea to agree in advance – at a time when you are not fighting – that difficult and/or heated discussions will not exceed 20 minutes in length. Feel free to set a timer so that you know when it’s time to drop the issue (temporarily, if it’s not yet resolved) and move on to something less stressful. In cases in which the issue is not resolved, you and your partner should schedule a time to continue the conversation – perhaps in a few hours, perhaps the next day, perhaps in your next couples counseling session.
- Agree That Time-outs Are OK, Even Encouraged
If you and/or your partner are seriously angry, there is little hope of resolution in the moment. Instead of trying to plow through the ever-escalating sea of emotion, it is usually best for one or both of you to simply call “time out.” Perhaps you can agree in advance – at a time when you are not fighting – that if the need arises, time-outs are acceptable and they will last 15 minutes, with the person who asks for the time-out leaving the room so that he or she can calm down before continuing the discussion. It may help if the person asking for a time-out assures the other that he or she is not abandoning the discussion or the relationship, and that he or she simply needs a few minutes to recalibrate before continuing. Again, there is nothing wrong with setting a 15-minute timer to let you know when the time-out has ended.
- Play Nice
When you are working through a difficult issue with your partner, behaviors like name-calling, shaming, blaming and using offensive language are not helpful. In fact, they are rather seriously unhelpful, as they undermine your sense of being on the same team and working together to overcome a problem (rather than working individually to overcome the other person and “win the fight”). Unsurprisingly, overtly physical acts like slapping, shoving, hitting, door-slamming and throwing things are similarly counterproductive – as are threats thereof. Any time abuse and/or fear of abuse enters a discussion, the conversation is almost certain to stall.
- Stay On Point
Nothing derails a potentially productive discussion like side issues. Perhaps you can agree with your partner in advance about the single topic to be discussed and (hopefully) worked through during this particular 20-minute session. Yes, there is probably more than one issue to resolve in your relationship, but that doesn’t mean you have to deal with all of them right this very moment. One at a time will do nicely, thank you very much. It is important that you and your partner understand that the present-day issue you are discussing may bring up issues from your or your partner’s distant past (triggering the re-experiencing of childhood traumas, for instance). You should be willing to acknowledge these past issues as part of the current discussion; however, you must understand that things like childhood trauma are best resolved in individual and/or group therapy rather than in spousal heart-to-hearts.
- Create a No-Fighting Zone(s)
There is a time and a place for everything, including difficult and/or heated discussions. That time and place is not while one of you is driving, or while you’re having dinner in a nice restaurant, or while you’re watching your kid play soccer, or at the mall, or when one of you is at work, or when one of you is feeling particularly low, vulnerable, tired, hungry or just plain not up for it. Another good rule is to not have difficult or heated discussions before 9 a.m., after 9 p.m. or in the bedroom – a haven for rest and relaxation – at any time. Perhaps you and your partner can agree in advance, at a time when you are not fighting, that if conflict arises at inappropriate times or when the two of you are in a no-fighting zone, that the upset feelings can simply be acknowledged and temporarily placed on the back burner.
- Ask for Help
Not every conflict is easily resolved simply through conversations between the two parties, no matter how amicable and “on the same team” those people are. Sometimes you will need to reach out for advice and assistance. If you and/or your partner are in 12-step recovery, perhaps you can reach out to a sponsor or another couple in recovery. Many such couples will have dealt with similar issues themselves. You might also consider working through your issue(s) in couples counseling, especially if your couples therapist has experience dealing with love addiction.