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Conflict Resolution Treatment with Couples: Levels of Intervention

Three Levels of Conflict Resolution Treatment

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., www.therapyhelp.com and www.poweroftwomarriage.com

 Jon and Julia came to therapy for help toning down their continual bickering.  Now they rarely bicker and enjoy instead a warm and loving partnership.  What does a conflict resolution therapist do that turns a couple like this from conflict to cooperation?

My therapy colleague Matthew LeBauer has terminology that I like a lot for explaining the three levels of intervention that conflict resolution treatment typically includes.

Level I: How To.  As early as in their first session I guided Jon and Julia through to an effective discussion of an issue over which they had locked horns.  Jon wanted to bring the family on a lengthy car trip for summer vacation.  Julia wanted to go to a beach and stay put. 

Learning as they went, I explained to the feuding spouses the basics of collaborative conflict resolution, shepherding their skills as we proceeded. By the end of the session Jon and Julia had experienced the pleasure of cooperative dialogue, plus the delight of having ended up with a truly win-win solution. 

Their decision to rent a fun fancy car, which was Jon’s main concern, and use it for occasional day trips from the beach house they would rent and where Julia would be able to enjoy the calm of being based in one main and beautiful spot, satisfied both of their underlying concerns.  In subsequent sessions, with the therapist’s help, Jon and Julia came to similarly mutually satisfying solutions on many issues that had been contentious.

Having seen that win-win really does work, Jon and Julia were eager to learn the skills that would enable the couple to solve similar conflicts collaboratively on their own.  In addition to augmenting and practicing new skills in their therapy sessions, they committed to learning from the Power of Two program.  At that time the program involved weekend workshops.  Now it’s on the internet at poweroftwomarriage.com. 

Level II How Come

Having seen that their old ways of interacting were filled with needless irritability and anger, Jon and Julia both found it helpful to look at some of the sources of their bickering.  Insight about the origins of difficulties makes it easier to pull up old bad habits from their roots.

Partly their bickering stemmed from never having seen and heard too little of the language of collaboration as they were growing up.  If their parents had modeled cooperative problem-solving they might have grown up speaking that language instead of the language of bickering that had prevailed in both of their families.

Partly also Jon’s training as a lawyer had strengthened his tendency to say “But…” and poke holes in Julia’s every attempt to express her concerns. 

Julia by contrast had gradually become depressed in the relationship.  Jon’s ability to trump whatever she said with his perspective had gradually worn her down to having little confidence in her own views.  She experienced a sense of having lost the “self” she used to have.  Now her identity had become mainly just to be a counterweight to Jon.  Whatever he said, she now would negate.  Speaking up for what she herself felt and thought scarcely happened any more.  Her comments had become mostly limited to why she was against what her husband wanted. Depression was both a cause and effective of her perpetual negativity.

Level III:  Tracking Down and Neutralizing the Sources of Negative Energy

Honing in on and easing the deeper emotional well-springs of distress completes the therapy process.  

Deeper, as once described very nicely by psychologist John Norcross, refers to subconscious feelings, concerns, or other phenomena that occurred historically earlier in ones life, and/or that are deeper in terms of less accessible to conscious awareness.

How does a conflict resolution therapist address these deeper issues?

Conflict resolution therapists identify the specific deeper underlying concerns that tend to resurface again and again in their client’s lives by listening closely to clients’ descriptions of moments that triggered upset feelings.  Situations, thoughts or feelings that trigger these “core concerns,” Lester Luborsky’s term for inflammatory thoughts that frequently bring up strong negative feelings.  For instance, whether the conflict involved where to go for vacation, how to help their daughter with her homework, or whether to renovate their kitchen, the same repeated deeper underlying concerns such as wanting to be heard or appreciated or free of blame would again and again lock Jon and Julia into angry escalations.   While deeper concerns tend to be universal preferences that virtually everyone prefers, Jon and Julia’s hyper-intense emotional reactions evoked hostility instead of a positive response from their loved one.

One frequently-evoked deeper core concern for Jim involved resentment at feeling negatively judged by his wife.  He hated to feel unjustly accused, stemming from having been the recipient of unjust accusations in his youth.  For Julia, feeling unheard or that whatever she said was being dismissed raised upsurges of hurt and angry responses stemming from her up-bringing in a large and chaotic family.

Conflict resolution therapists access these deeper concerns with a range of techniques.  They may use visualization techniques, utilizing, for instance, what I refer to in my book From Conflict to Resolution as a “depth dive.” They may use bioenergetic techniques such as Nelson Bradley’s Emotion Code or EFT.  Or they may choose to use other alternative options.   

Once the triggering earlier episode has been identified and the negative emotions released vis a vis this point of origin, the neutralized emotional reaction then needs to be brought up to present time.  That can be accomplished by distinguishing the ways in which the present differs from the past, by using energetic neutralizing techniques such as a magnet or EFT tapping, or by other procedures for removing toxic emotional residues.   

In sum, successful exploration of deeper core concerns begins with identification of the triggering thoughts or situations that are occuring in present-day life.   Second, the origination point of the reactions in a moment of sudden or intense emotions earlier in life needs pinpointing.  Lastly, these triggers then can be neutralized, that is, emptied of negative emotional reactivity.  The result should be that thoughts and situations that feel similar to traumatic moments in a person’s past then will no longer evoke negative energy such as irritation, anger, or distrust, in the present or future. 

Having completed all three levels of treatment, Jon and Julia now enjoy a calm, fun-loving and collaborative relationship.  Jon doesn’t need to even use his anger management techniques because angry feelings no longer rise beyond an occasional whisper within him.  Julie feels appreciated and taken seriously, so she too enjoys a steady pattern of warm and loving feelings toward Jon.

Mission accomplished.

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