Conflict and Communcation
Shaun McMahon is a couples counsellor who helps couples in Melbourne develop their communication and conflict skills.
Do you feel like you’re fighting all of the time with your partner? Does it seem like your fights are getting worse and worse? Do you sometimes want to run away and hide when a fight breaks out?
If you’re like most people, you’re seeking out a couples counselor because you and your partner have been arguing more. What was once playful banter or bickering has now evolved into frequent arguments that can end in screaming matches, or a stone cold silence that lingers in the house for days or weeks on end.
Or maybe you’re in the opposite situation: you and your partner don’t fight at all, but as a result, you have no idea what the other is really thinking about you and the relationship. Perhaps you worry they’re holding onto deep resentments that are festering over time, or worse, their distance is a sign that they’re getting their needs met through someone outside of the relationship.
Let’s Pause For a Moment...
Before I tell you about how I can help, I want to invite you to take a moment to reflect upon something. If you think back to your time in school, university, and any jobs you’ve held, have you ever been offered a class or workshop on how to make a relationship work?
If your answer is no, you’re like most people who walk into my office.
See, many of us have never learned how to make a relationship work, how to navigate a conflict, and more importantly, how to repair after a fight.
When you think about it, this doesn’t make much sense. Intimate relationships can be one of the most important things in our lives, but most of us don’t take the time to actually learn what it takes to make it succeed. You wouldn’t get into a helicopter cockpit and fire up the engine without extensive training first, nor would you slice open someone’s chest to perform a heart transplant without years of study.
Relationships are just as complex, if not more so, than these endeavors, yet we invest so little time into learning how to make a relationship work. I point this out not to make you feel bad about yourself, but to invite you to take the pressure off for a moment. If you find yourself in a relationship that’s struggling and are reading this, please know that it makes sense that things are hard right now. Because let’s face it, you’re basically making it up as you go.
What I’ve learned from talking to many couples is that most people learn about relationships via two main sources.
The first is Hollywood, which, to be honest, is a load of nonsense. While it might be compelling to watch a husband and wife hurl arguments and objects at each other from across the room, only to be struck by a moment of passion and begin making love, it’s highly unrealistic. What we rarely see is a couple enjoying each other's company over dinner for the 7,000th time, or successfully coping with a troublesome mother-in-law, or taking responsibility for how they contributed to that gruesome fight. The meat and potatoes of relationships are rarely presented in a way that is healthy, relatable, and sets a good example.
The second way in which we learn about relationships is through our family. Unfortunately, not everyone grows up in a two parent home where a healthy relationship is modeled for them. Maybe one or both parents were unhappy in the relationship, or they might have called it quits while you were still young. With the divorce rate hovering at 50%, it’s becoming more and more common for people to have only had one parent in the home growing up. It’s more than likely that your parents didn’t have any understanding about how to make a relationship work either! Whatever your family background, chances are there are some gaps in your knowledge about making a relationship work, or worse, you’re carrying severe relational trauma and attachment issues which are impacting your relationship to this day.
Lastly, I should give an honourable mention to some other avenues where we might learn about relationships. The first are magazines, which you might have read in your teenage years growing up, with articles such as “How to get the guy (and keep him!)” or “10 things you can do in the bedroom to make sure he’ll wait on you hand and foot”. The modern evolution of this is social media. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are congested with what an influencer thinks a relationship should be, even though they may have no training, knowledge or understanding of what it takes to actually make a relationship work.
The good news is that there has actually been a lot of research conducted on how a healthy relationship actually functions. Enter: Drs John and Julie Gottman.
The Gottman Method
The Gottmans have a combined 40+ years of experience studying how successful relationships work, and what separates the masters from the disasters. In their work, they’ve uncovered four trends which can emerge in conflict between partners which can greatly increase the likelihood of separation and divorce. The Gottmans refer to them as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to convey the pure destructive force they can have on a relationship. Here’s a brief look at the Four Horsemen:
Everyone has complaints about their partner or the relationship itself, but criticism typically comes in the form of biting comments which are attacks on your partner’s character. It sounds like this: “you’re so lazy, why can’t you take the rubbish out for once?” or “of course you forgot all about my work function because you’re selfish and only care about yourself”.
You may already be familiar with some of these behaviors in your own relationship, and might be wondering: what do we do about it?
The good news is that the Gottmans have come up with four ‘antidotes’ to the horseman which can dramatically improve the way you engage with conflict in your relationship. Part of the benefit of having couples counseling is having an objective mediator who won’t take sides, and can point out when the horsemen pop up in the heat of the moment, and gently guide you back to what you’re really trying to express.
But there’s more to it than just eliminating the Four Horsemen. What I’ve found in my work with couples is that the common day to day complaints that people mostly have about their partner or relationship are actually indicative of deeper problems or unresolved issues in the relationship which haven’t been expressed and processed. And while my work is heavily influenced by the Gottman modality, something I’ve found that is universal to most of the approaches to couples work is teaching people to be better communicators.
Moving From Being Right To Understanding
If you and your partner are struggling with conflict and communication, one of the main places we’ll begin is focusing on fundamental skills that will help you to truly hear what your partner is saying. Whenever we’re arguing with our partner, we’re typically trying to be right and win the argument. The problem is that if you win, it means that your partner loses, and therefore the relationship loses. Instead I’ll be encouraging you to try to understand your partner's experience, coming from a place of curiosity rather than judgment.
Ultimately, we’re trying to build up to what Dr. Ellyn Bader from the Couples Institute calls an ‘Initiator / Inquirer’ dialogue. In essence, the Initiator brings up the problem they’re experiencing in a way that doesn’t blame or accuse their partner. Their partner, the Inquirer, listens to their partner and helps them to explore their experience.
While this might sound simple, I’ve learned that without laying the groundwork of good communication skills so that both partners can understand each other, the Four Horsemen come charging in and sabotage what could otherwise be a moment for deeper connection and insight into your partner's internal world.
Being able to have a conversation of this nature is invaluable for relationships. One of the most common complaints I hear from female partners in heterosexual couples is that their male partner doesn’t meet them emotionally. They often feel very lonely in the relationship, despite living with their partner and seeing them every day. On the other hand, I hear many men express a fear of bringing up difficult issues with their partner, believing that doing so will either make their partner deeply upset, or cause a fight. Often, they keep problems to themselves, which can feel confusing for their female partner and further the divide between you.
The Initiator / Inquirer dialogue is designed to empower you to have better communication in your relationship, so that you not only feel safe enough to share your deepest feelings and desires, but also have the confidence to raise issues in a way that they will truly be heard.
Now you could try to learn these skills on your own, and I highly encourage all of my couples to branch out and find resources to learn more about relationships, whether that is in the form of books, videos or podcasts. But more often than not, couples have already tried everything they can think of to make a change in their relationship and feel nothing has really worked. What they really need is someone to guide them through this process who isn’t going to side with one partner, but is instead on the side of the relationship.
How To Begin Improving The Conflict And Communication In Your Relationship
As a couples therapist, I’m really excited about helping you and your partner to reduce the amount of conflict in your relationship, learn how to have better communication, and deepen your connection with each other. After an initial assessment process, we’ll dive into learning how to be better communicators and structure conflict in a way that will help you to get to the heart of the issue faster than if you did it on your own.
If you would like to speak to me about getting help with your relationship, I highly encourage you to get in touch to arrange a 15 minute free phone consultation. I’ll gather some basic details about your relationship and let you know how I can help. And if you’re unsure if your partner will commit, I’m more than happy to speak to them as well to make sure they’re comfortable with the process.
If there’s one thing I want you to know having read this far, it’s that change is possible in your relationship.
However, there is a catch.
See, as much as I’d love to be the one who does all of the work for you, unfortunately there’s very little I can do to change you or your partner. Most people find it hard enough to get themselves to change, let alone changing someone else. There’s an old saying that goes “couples therapy doesn’t work; couples work”. Going to a couples therapist is sort of like going to a personal trainer. They can set up all of the necessary conditions for you to succeed, but if you’re not the one doing the heavy lifting at the end of the day, nothing is going to change.
Sometimes when I see a couple it's very clear that one partner doesn’t want to be there, or that both partners have given up on the relationship, and are too scared to be the one to end things. While I’m a firm believer that there is hope for (nearly) all relationships, sometimes things just aren’t going to work out, and no amount of couples counseling or other interventions are going to change that.
That’s why it's really important for both you and your partner to be ready to commit to this process. It generally takes 2-3 months before couples begin to see improvements in their relationship from doing couples work. If both you and your partner aren’t ready to commit to at least 6 sessions to work on your relationship, it’s possible you’re just not ready for couples counseling. While I’d love to be able to help, I’m not a miracle worker, and unfortunately don’t have any magic pills to offer. I’ve not yet encountered a couple that was drastically changed after one session with me, as much as I’d love for that to be the case!
Interested In Couples Counselling With Shaun?
If you and your partner are ready to commit to this process and try to make it work, I strongly encourage you to get in touch with me by filling out an inquiry form here. We’ll arrange a time within the next week for us to have a 15 minute call about your relationship, and you’ll have a chance to tell me about what’s going on and ask any questions you might have about the process. If I feel I can’t help or that I’m not the right fit for the problems you’re experiencing, I’ll refer you on to someone who can help.
If you are reading this and are currently in an abusive relationship, please know that I do not work with relationships where on-going domestic violence is present. If you are a victim of domestic violence, please reach out to Safe Steps on 1800 015 188 to speak to a specialist who can assist you with your situation.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How long does couples therapy take?
It typically takes 2-3 months before people begin to recognize noticeable improvements in their relationship. This time can vary depending on multiple factors, including how long the two of you have been together, the severity of the issues you’re facing, and the amount of effort you both put into making the relationship work. When things are really bad it can take 1-2 years of continuous work to address the issues in a relationship. With that said, it’s common for people to begin with weekly sessions, and as they see improvement begin to taper off to fortnightly, and then monthly sessions.
My partner isn’t interested in attending couples therapy. What should I do?
It can be tough wanting to work on your relationship only to find that your partner isn’t interested. While many people are outrightly opposed to therapy of any kind, it might surprise you to learn that they might have good reasons. Often they feel they will be blamed, that it might make things worse, or that they'll be ganged up on by you and the therapist. While I can’t convince your partner to change their mind, it might be worth letting them know that I’m happy to have a 15 minute chat with them on the phone to address any concerns they have about couples therapy and whether or not it works. If there’s no changing their mind, I encourage you to consider one on one therapy with me to work on your relationship issues.
My male partner has never had therapy before, but I feel he could really use some. Is couples therapy a good way to introduce him to therapy?
It’s common for a couple to begin working with me, only for the female partner to reveal that one of her main motives was to get her male partner into one on one therapy to work on his issues so that the relationship improves. I believe therapy is beneficial to nearly everyone, and it’s often the case that males do end up seeing me one on one after beginning couples therapy. However, I should add a word of caution. If your partner does not want to change, there’s nothing I can do to change him. Encouraging him into individual therapy can also take the focus and momentum away from the couple's therapy, so there’s no guaranteeing it will actually achieve the outcome you’re looking for, which is to improve the relationship. If you want your partner to consider one on one therapy, I encourage you to direct him to my page on therapy for men, and for him to get in touch with me for a free consultation.
We’ve tried couples therapy before and it didn’t work. Can you help?
If your previous couples therapy hasn’t worked, my first thoughts would be about whether or not you and your partner made a consistent effort to improve things, and if you stuck with it. In most cases when I hear that couples therapy didn’t work, it’s because people didn’t do anything differently, and they only tried it for 2-3 sessions. It’s important to know that it typically takes 2-3 months of weekly couples therapy before people begin to recognize noticeable improvements in their relationship. That said, I understand it’s possible that you didn’t gel with your past therapist, or that their approach wasn’t suited to your situation. I encourage you to reach out for a 15 minute consultation and we can discuss how things might be different with me.
Addiction is a big part of our relationship difficulties - is this something you work with?
While I recognize the challenges that addiction can place on a relationship, whether its drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, or a myriad of other addictions, it’s not something I’m formally trained in. If you feel addiction is your primary issue in the relationship I advise you to find someone who specializes in this area.