If you are in a relationship, you probably know that there is bound to be conflict. But did you know that the way you handle conflict with your partner often becomes a pattern?

When the pattern is functional, all is well. Let me give a simple example. A hypothetical couple is disagreeing about where to go to dinner. Partner A wants pizza. Partner B wants steak. They disagree. A says, “On a scale of 0-10, how important is it that you get steak?” They each put forth their number, and the partner with the lower number is happy to give way to the other. Or, A says, “Okay, we can go get steak, but next time I get to choose,” and B agrees. Maybe one of these is always the way the two handle a conflict like this. Both partners are happy about the decision.

But maybe the pattern is dysfunctional. A wants pizza and won’t give in, never gives in, so B always gives in to keep the peace, but is resentful. The way you feel after the conflict is the key. Is there resentment, or is there satisfaction?

An infinity symbol is often used to denote the pattern that couples get in when they disagree about something in a dysfunctional way. I like this symbol because it shows the clear cycle and pattern. You can imagine partner A (on one side of the symbol) saying something that calls forth a reaction from partner B, then partner B’s reaction calls forth a reaction from partner A, and on and on. Around and around we go.

Let’s say that A comes home from work and the kitchen is messy. B was home for the afternoon and A expected to come home to a clean house, and says something to that effect. Maybe A is tired after a hard day and says something critical to B, like, “Why don’t you ever clean up after yourself?” At this point, B gets defensive and prickly, and doesn’t answer. A repeats the question, this time with a bit more vigor. B continues to withdraw, not wanting to deal with an argument. The more B withdraws, the angrier A gets. The angrier A gets, the more B withdraws. Do you see how the pattern keeps continuing? And there is no resolution, at least no productive one.

It can be helpful to look at the pattern of conflict in your relationship and do the simple assessment of how you feel after conflict. Do you feel like there’s been a resolution satisfying for both partners? If so, way to go!! Do you feel like things either escalate or there is no resolution? If so, examine your pattern. Sometimes it takes just a simple change in your pattern to shift it.

For example, partner B comes home from work expecting the kitchen to be clean. Knowing that being critical won’t work (since B has been examining their pattern and wants to shift it), instead B gives A a big kiss and says “Tell me about your day – and do you want help cleaning the kitchen?”  Or, when B starts criticizing A, A decides not to take it personally and says in a mellow way, “Yeah, I was too busy to clean but I will later,” and goes to give B a big kiss. Both of these actions have shifted the pattern from the usual cycle, and are more likely to leave both A and B in a better frame of mind and more connected than before the shift.

Sometimes it’s difficult for couples to examine their own pattern and make changes since they are so entrenched in it, it just seems normal. And, sometimes the pattern, although recognized, is so entrenched that it seems impossible to shift. If you find yourself in these situations, it can be helpful to seek professional support from a couples counselor. It’s amazing how shifting your pattern just a little has great power to shift your relationship towards increased connection and happiness.