A Ladies' Home Journal "Can This Marriage Be Saved" columnist explains how a subconscious inner conflict is at the heart of most attractions and arguments, counseling couples on how to identify their "master conflict" in order to render it a bonding tool. By the author of Intrusive Partners--Elusive Mates.
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THE MAGNETIC POWER OF MASTER CONFLICTS
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships in my thirty years of doing couples therapy, it’s that they’re complex. We’d all like to think that we fall in love, choose a life partner, and then the rest is as effortless as riding a bike. But the truth is that relationships require a constant job of adapting, compromising, and keeping pace with our partners so that we avoid growing apart—and that is the easiest piece of the puzzle. The hardest is usually beyond our level of consciousness: I’m talking about knowing ourselves. We must start out with personal insight and an understanding of how we were influenced by our pasts. What’s driving us to do the things we do? What’s compelling us to feel the way we feel? And, as I’ll encourage you to explore as the special focus of this book, what inner conflicts are a constant struggle for you?
Some people may be in relationships that are all smooth sailing. Maybe the stars are aligned in their favor, and these couples have somehow managed to control their conflicts. It could also be true, however, that they’ve decided to settle, not wanting to rock the boat because they don’t believe that a better deal awaits them. And, of course, there are those who are afraid to change. After all, change is hard, and for most of us, relationships are tough to manage. But I don’t say this with pessimism. I’m actually a confirmed optimist, and a big believer in relationships. I’m stressing the difficulty involved because in my practice I’ve seen too many couples give up too easily on their relationships. I’ll never forget one newlywed who decided to divorce her husband after six months because she felt that a “normal marriage should be easy.” Again, not true. To achieve relationship success, you’ve got to be patient, be committed, and work hard. In his book Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman wrote: “Stress happens when the mind resists what is.” In Magnetic Partners, we will face reality together.
Through the course of this book, I will share with you my strongest conviction as a couples therapist: an underlying, largely unconscious conflict is responsible for most of the truly intractable relationship problems I’ve helped couples through. Affairs, chronic fighting, troubled sex lives, and most dating dilemmas, I have found, very often can be traced to what I have come to call a “master conflict,” a powerful conflict that largely controls your relationship. What’s more, this same master conflict has very often also acted as a powerful bonding force in the relationship. The great irony about master conflicts is that they are often the underlying force of attraction that brought a couple together with an almost magnetic power, and yet, just as often, the same force is pushing a couple apart.
What is a master conflict? Think of it as an unconscious struggle within yourself—like having two politicians inside you, arguing about some issue, and you just can’t make up your mind as to whom you should believe. The especially tricky thing about this struggle is that one politician is not necessarily right and the other wrong. In this struggle, neither side is necessarily better than the other. But even in those situations when one side does seem to be the more appropriate choice, those two politicians in your head are both scoring points, enough to confuse you—blurring the difference between right and wrong and making it even more difficult for you to make a decision. For example, you may be conflicted about being either powerful or passive in your relationship: being in charge is gratifying but too much work; being passive leaves you with little responsibility but too little control. Or you might be conflicted about meeting your needs: taking care of yourself may feel good but evoke guilt; taking care of your partner may be the right thing to do but may also lead to too much responsibility.
Trying to reach a compromise with your master conflict is usually no easy task. Why? Because compromise means change, and change usually brings with it the anxiety of taking on the unknown and the depression that comes with a loss of the way things were. But there is good news: these feeling-states are usually temporary, so if we can tolerate them, they may lead us to a much better life, one that we never could have imagined. What I’m saying is that underlying fear—the fear of anxiety and depression—makes it difficult for us to choose one side over the other or to strike some sort of compromise between the two sides. Shifting back and forth helps us to avoid the pain that might come from making a choice. Why take charge in your relationship if you fear having too much responsibility? Why be passive if you fear being controlled? Master conflicts can cause us pain, but to avoid discomfort we prefer not to challenge them; we prefer to “stay the same without the pain,” and who can blame us? We may seek help to stop the suffering but not to change the internal master conflict. I’ll show you what I mean.
Take the case of Seth, who at age fifty-five was still a bachelor, though in a painful, dead-end relationship. He couldn’t move on because a master conflict had a tight grip on him; he was torn by the inability to decide whether to commit to a lasting relationship or to remain free of the responsibilities that such a relationship requires.
He slowly shuffled into my office one day and began to tell me his story in a soft, monotone voice. He was dating Denise, thirty-nine, a tall, lanky graphic artist whom he wanted to marry. But Denise gave Seth numerous signs that she wasn’t genuinely interested in him—canceling dates at the last minute and acting preoccupied when they were together. Most of us have been subjected to indifference at least once in our dating careers; it’s no fun at all. It’s also not at all hard to pick up on. Seth’s friends could clearly see the truth; they had told him that they felt Denise wasn’t the least bit interested in him, pointing out that she saw him only when she had nothing else to do and that she refused to have sex with him. But Seth had brushed off their comments. Then one night his cousin Barb joined the happy couple for dinner, and afterward she told Seth: “There’s no way that girl likes you. My God ... she seemed more interested in watching the restaurant television than hanging out with you. Women know women ... you dip! Forget about her.” That hit Seth hard, and shortly after this he came to see me.
As I talked with Seth, I quickly discovered that he wasn’t at all clueless about how Denise was treating him. The real problem was that her indifference actually suited one side of his master conflict just fine. He was under the sway of the commitment vs. freedom conflict, which led him to commit to distant and “unavailable” women and to reject other, more available, female partners, thereby guaranteeing his freedom. It was his unconscious way of not having to choose between commitment and freedom.
When I pointed his conflict out to him, he resisted the notion. “Listen, I want to be married,” he said to me, “I’d like nothing better. I’d love to marry Denise.” But, like most people who are in the grip of a strong conflict, Seth blamed his partner. “Denise keeps her distance: I just can’t pin her down,” he said. Okay, but even when I advised him of his futile situation, he refused to move on. His excuse: “I’ll never find another woman my age as hot as Denise.” Our master conflicts are powerful motivators for rationalization. The point is that Seth chose to continue a painful charade with Denise rather than give her up and risk commitment with a more eligible partner.
Some people liken the struggle to make a choice—the key characteristic of master conflicts—to being on a seesaw with an issue at each end. When you lean toward choosing one side of the conflict, the seesaw is weighted toward that end; when you lean toward the other side of the conflict, the seesaw is weighted toward the other end. And you just keep tipping back and forth! Couples usually run into trouble when the seesaw is tipped too far toward one end. If it stays unbalanced for an extended period of time, then the sparks can really fly. For example, if a couple were able to deftly balance a conflict about closeness, they might be able to get by with only a few minor skirmishes. But if one partner decided to tip the seesaw by demanding a great deal more or a great deal less closeness, the relationship would probably end up in serious trouble. That is, unless the other partner shifted as well.
Do you remember this story? When Viagra, the drug for erection problems, first became available, a woman sued her seventy-year-old, longtime lover for damages. The woman claimed that the lover had been impotent for four years, but once he regained potency with the help of Viagra, he dumped her for another woman. I’m sure there’s more to the story, but my point is that for most of their four years together I suspect the couple was able to balance a master conflict centered around a serious sexual issue. But the feisty boyfriend tipped the seesaw beyond return when he suddenly decided to become potent and ply his wares elsewhere.
I am sympathetic about the anxiety that accompanies the decision-making process about a deep conflict—I’ve had my own big ones to grapple with over the years. When a person is truly struggling with one of these conflicts, it can seem as if his or her very survival depends on striking a good compromise.
This is where the power of master conflicts to bring couples together comes into play. They often act as a powerful—and almost immediate—bonding force.
The conventional wisdom holds that opposites attract. Well, on a surface level, opposites do attract. But, on a deeper and more important level, opposites do not attract—an assertion that at first confuses most of the couples I counsel, who believe they’re fighting so much because they’re so different. Certainly, we are often drawn to people whose personalities or temperaments are different from ours in certain ways, and those differences can lead to conflict. If you’re excitable or prone to stress, you may consciously pick a partner who you’re convinced is the complete opposite—calm. You may then end up fighting because your partner’s calmness begins to seem to you like a sign of not caring as much about things as you do, or because your partner begins to find your behavior agitating or hysterical. The psychological and biological (neurological and hormonal) makeup of men and women is different in some ways, though I believe that biological and gender differences have been overstated and that a stronger, deeper force of attraction in most of the couples I’ve counseled has been a shared master conflict. Again and again in my couples counseling, I’ve found that underlying conflicts play a major role in our choice of a long-term mate.
The reason master conflicts act as such a magnetic force is that in order to maintain your conflict, which almost all of us unconsciously try desperately to do, you must select someone with the same or similar conflict—your “twin-in-conflict.” If you pick someone with an identical conflict—unconsciously, of course—you can avoid resolving the conflict, and your partner can act as a fail-safe in this effort. After all, it’s natural that we feel most comfortable with someone who shares our master conflict because, on a deeper level, this person “gets” us and we also get them. Your unconscious quickly tells you that this person has experienced what you’ve experienced; therefore, what’s most important to him or her is most important to you.
Okay, you might ask, but what about physical attraction? What about personality type? What about similar interests? Don’t these factors count for anything? Of course they do. I strongly believe they all help us make relationship choices—just not in the same way that we often think they do. For example, if you’re a woman who is attracted to tall men with dark hair, I’m sure you look for these characteristics when searching for a mate. This is “surface attraction”—and it will take a relationship only so far. For a deep bond to occur, you’ll need to find a tall, dark man with whom you’re also compatible, and one of the powerful sources of compatibility is a shared master conflict.
Your master conflict is, by far, the best matchmaker you’ve got. For better or for worse, dating sites don’t come close to your master conflict. It even probably dictates whom you will choose on these popular sites. I tell clients this all the time: If I put you in a room with one hundred people, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll unconsciously choose the person with a similar master conflict. And let me stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing.
THE PROS AND CONS OF THE MASTER CONFLICT
Master conflicts are normal in relationships and totally unavoidable. They exist in even the healthiest couples, but they rarely cause severe damage to these relationships. Some couples are simply better able to tolerate anxiety and loss and to successfully negotiate with their conflicts, and they experience only minor eruptions in their relationships.
Master conflicts also can do a couple some good. They can, at times, help to balance a relationship by limiting extreme behavior. For example, one partner might be able to set some limits on the other’s excessive spending and keep the couple financially solvent; the spendthrift may inject some much-needed excitement and fun into an otherwise boring relationship. But in many couples, master conflicts eventually become toxic to the point of destruction.
Take the case of a couple I treated, Eric and Jenna, who shared a security vs. risk conflict.
Jenna walked briskly into my office and threw herself down on one of the soft blue chairs by the window. At thirty-six, she was an attractive real estate agent. She immediately came across as decisive and fast-paced, speaking in a frustrated, pressured tone. “Life is so boring with Eric. I can’t stand it. I feel like I’m dying a slow death. He just doesn’t show any passion for anything, especially our sex life. There’s not an ounce of spontaneity in him—he’s so controlled.”
Eric was one of those souls who had a smile permanently attached to his face, as if someone had come along and glued a grin on him.
While still smiling, Eric protested his wife’s remarks. “We do a lot of things together—you’re just insatiable,” he said. “Yes, it’s true that I don’t like to take big risks or just take off somewhere without having a plan, but I enjoy life. I also like sex; I’m just not as kinky as you. Actually, I think you’re a little weird.” Eric then turned to me and said, “Jenna can never be satisfied. She’s an out-of-control Energizer Bunny.” When I asked him to clarify, he responded: “Jenna lives by the seat of her pants. If it were up to her, we’d live like Romans, but we wouldn’t have a penny left to our name.”
Eric and Jenna seemed to be complete opposites, but underlying their differences was the powerful psychological bond of both being conflicted about the degree of lif...
In this wonderfully accessible book, Dr. Betchen unravels the paradox of romantic attraction if opposites attract, why then, can couples who start with loving similarities wind up repelling each other with such force ? Here is a clear, compassionate instruction manual for couples who want to move beyond being stuck. Through illuminating the hidden power of master conflicts, couples understand themselves and their partner through fresh insights and growth that makes a lasting life of love together both possible and, dare I say, enjoyable.
Dr. Jay Lappin, M.S.W., LCSW, Family Therapy Director, Centrapc
"In this wonderfully accessible book, Dr. Betchen unravels the paradox of romantic attraction- if opposites attract, why then, can couples who start with loving similarities wind up repelling each other with such force ? Here is a clear, compassionate instruction manual for couples who want to move beyond being stuck. Through illuminating the hidden power of "master conflicts," couples understand themselves and their partner through fresh insights and growth that makes a lasting life of love together both possible and, dare I say, enjoyable."
--Dr. Jay Lappin, M.S.W., LCSW, Family Therapy Director, Centrapc
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