Angry and Urgent in Relationship
Angry and Urgent in Relationship

When we come together in relationship we each bring to the table a complex set of individual experiences born, raised, and marinated in the context of relationships with our family of origin, culture, society, etc. These experiences shape our views and expectations of how the world will respond to us and how we will, or should, respond to the world. 

When I work with couples, families and individuals I am considering all of these factors in tandem with our primal human instinct drives to survive. Everything makes sense given a person’s experience. So, when I witness clients experiencing high emotion and high conflict that has led to blinding polarization in their relationships I get really curious.

Recently I listened to the show, One Small Step hosted by NPR. Its efforts have aimed to reach across the divide of partisans by having intentional conversations grounded in a psychology theory known as Contact Hypothesis. One requirement for success is there must be “equal status among groups and common goals.” 

The approach is intended to give people an opportunity to recognize when personal values get conflated with people (John Powell), and to remember our shared humanity by listening (Dave Isay). I was struck by a statement on structural racism made by LaTosha Brown that felt true in my own observational experiences of working with couples and families in high conflict:

“It’s one thing to have a political belief that is different, but at the end of the day if your politics say that I don’t have a right to exist that’s a different kind of meaning for me… and so where there is an undermining of the recognition of my humanity, that’s beyond political indifferences.”

On some level, I see an undermining of humanity occurring in partnered and family relationships when people become polarized in their experiences of one another to the degree they become blinded to the humanity of the other person, losing the ability to listen to and hear each other. Inevitably, each becomes the enemy. Amanda Ripley shared an example of this in her definition of hight conflict:

“High conflict is when regular conflict escalates to a point where both sides start to feel like the other side is crazy; they are baffled by each other… there’s so little trust and so many distortions happening in how we perceive each other that it get’s really hard to see the options. We make big mistakes in our assumptions about each other.”

An inability to soften stances or assumptions about others can compromise the integrity of any relationship; power differentials can polarize this further. John Powell posed a question that relationship therapists understand well, “Do we turn on each other? Or do we turn toward each other?” because “It is clear… that when we turn on each other, we don’t survive.”

The argument and concern that has been raised in our current political and sociopolitical environment is, “How should Americans be engaging with each other now given the strong polarization and feelings of so much at stake?” (Elise Hue). When we are at an inflection point, do we get angry and fight? Do we give in to contempt? Or do we lean in?

“There is a time to fight. I do think that anger is important,” added Amanda Ripley, but the biggest argument for having conversations that leave your decency in tact is because its the only thing that works. If we want to persuade and change each others minds there is no way to do that without making each other feel heard.”

In order to create change, build trust and deepen connection, we must engage in having uncomfortable conversations and learn to contend with our own resistance and discomfort. I often refer to Gottman’s Four Horseman and Antidotes as a tool to navigate conflict. With success the hope is to create more understanding and trust between one another, and hopefully a bridge between our differences. 

Therapy is a platform to engage in collaborative and meaningful conversations in a safe and controlled environment and to make contact with our shared humanity. In doing so, therapy can bridge the gap of polarized experiences both internally and between people. It can help people learn how to listen and to feel heard. 

“We are in this country together. We are married to each other.” (Amanda Ripley). We are going to have to deal with each other.