Ryan and Megan thought they were fighting about the cookout. But the level of conflict of their fight was actually deeper. And that matters.
Ryan and Megan were in our living room and they couldn’t agree. Ryan’s friends were going to get together over the weekend and grill burgers and they wanted their wives and kids to attend. Ryan wanted to stay late and enjoy his friends. Megan wanted to leave earlier and get the kids put to bed. This fight had been going on for several days.

As they sat on our couch they each passionately went into their arguments in defense of their position. My wife, Michelle, and I listened to their argument. We had been coaching them on validation and listening to one another. So, we suggested that they talk to each other and try to validate what the other was thinking and feeling. This resorted into them going off on tangents about other offenses.

We finally stepped in and asked them to compromise. They compromised to within 15 minutes of a time to leave, but neither of them would compromise anymore. As I sat there, it occurred to me that this fight had nothing to do with what time they were going to leave the cookout. This fight was about something else.

Ryan and Megan felt like they were fighting about the cookout. This fight was much deeper. As marriage mentors, it is helpful to recognize the level of conflict.

Level of Conflict 1: What We Fight About

The first level of conflict is “what we fight about”. Couples have disagreements about all kinds of topics. This is natural. When we live our life with someone else, we are going to disagree. Common topics include money, kids, parenting, chores, sex, etc.

My wife and I can have a disagreement about anything. Most of these arguments come from missed expectations. I expected her home at 5:00 and she came home at 6:00. She expects me to stop at the grocery store on the way home to buy milk and I forget.

In level one conflicts, the topic is the topic. I am honestly angry at Michelle because she came home an hour late. There is no other significance to this. We just disagree. I’m not feeling devalued in any way. I expected her at a certain time and she expected to come home later.

Often we argue because we didn’t communicate our expectation. We just assume that our partner knows it. My wife and I have learned to be very good at clarifying what we expect from one another. We also assume good intent. Neither of us is trying to intentionally hurt the other person. Any type of hurt emotion is a byproduct of a misunderstanding.

Level one conflict can be about difficult issues. This disagreement may never be solved. It may just need to be managed. These solutions can be mediated and compromised on. Both people feel valued, respected and honored. They know they disagree and that’s OK.

When Ryan and Megan couldn’t agree on a time to leave a party, it became obvious that this was about something deeper.

Level of Conflict 2: How We Fight

Level two conflict is about “how we fight”. This level is typified by repeating the same pattern over and over again, regardless of the topic. In other words, it’s not about money, chores or parenting, it is about how we feel during the argument.

Couples tend to fall into a few patterns of how they fight. He criticizes and she defends. She counter-criticizes and he defends. This argument escalates until one of the them walks out of the room and stonewalls. There are feelings of being attacked and there are feelings of being dismissed. Neither of them is feeling valued, loved or respected.

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Couples at a level two conflict level can work on new behaviors that will help them to communicate love and respect, even in the middle of a fight. Listening techniques can help here. Reducing poor conflict behaviors, like contempt, can be helpful.

When we are mentoring couples, we work on helping them to recognize the pattern in their fights. Sometimes this is obvious when they fight in front of you. I will identify the pattern of criticize-defend-criticize-stonewall. If the couple can recognize it as it happens, they can start to make new choices.

We help couples to recognize that their fight isn’t about a cookout, it’s about how they are interacting during the fight. This makes a big difference as they learn to move to healthy conflict.

Level of Conflict 3: Emotional Triggers

The third level of conflict is emotional triggers. Have you ever heard someone blow up and react in a way that is out of proportion to the situation? That’s an emotional trigger.

You hear something that triggers an insecurity or a memory inside of yourself and you react with fight, flight or freeze.

One of the most common examples of this is called demand-withdraw. One person feels ignored or rejected by their spouse, so they make a demand. Their spouse feels like they are being attacked, so they withdraw by not saying anything. This makes the demander feel more rejected, so they make a louder demand. The withdrawer feels more attacked and disrespected, so they walk out of the room.

Both of these people have emotional triggers. The demander is triggered by feeling rejected. The withdrawer is triggered by feeling attacked. Their insecurities are triggering each other. When this is happening, you can’t compromise or mediate your way through the conflict.

Understanding what triggers you and what triggers your spouse can help couples to manage their conflict. If I know that my wife is upset because I just said something that sounded like her dad, it’s a little easier to offer empathy and compassion. If my wife understands that when I walk away, I’m actually controlling my anger, she gives me a bit more grace.

Emotional triggers can take a bit of reflection to understand. These can be tough to identify. People often don’t understand their own emotional triggers.

Ryan and Meagan’s fight was fueled by their emotional triggers and insecurities. Their fight was at a level three. They honestly disagreed about what time to leave the party, but that could have been quickly resolved by compromising.

The two of them were not fighting well. They were criticizing, defending and being contemptuous. While this is a level two conflict, they kept being triggered by something deeper. When we tried to work on better skills, like listening, this didn’t resolve anything. Often, our poor communication behaviors trigger something in our spouse. Sometimes deeply.

Megan and Ryan had something much deeper going on. While we asked about it that night, we didn’t figure it out. When they came back with the same type of issue again, we started to put a few things together.

We started to ask about what’s triggering them in their desire not to compromise. Both of them admitted that neither felt valued and respected. This triggered in them a need to fight and prove their point. One of them always wanted to be the winner and for that to happen, the other person needed to lose. Once they started to recognize that this attitude was hurting their relationship, they worked on trying to think win-win. This helped them to be triggered less and resolve disagreements more quickly.