When I got married I discovered that my husband was a ‘rhino’. Not literally thankfully, but when he got angry he would display certain ‘rhino’ traits. Coming from a family of ‘hedgehogs’ I didn’t know how to respond. I curled up, stuck out my prickles and refused to engage which angered him even more! A little while ago I attended a ‘Relationships’ webinar by the charity ‘Family Life’. Family Life is a charity that seek to strengthen relationships and support marriage. Their webinar was all about dealing with conflict in our relationships. They started with a quick-fire interview round, which highlighting discrepancies between the couple interviewed, showing how these differences can lead to conflict. Our current situation in lockdown, is not normal, and the possibility of tension is higher in relationships than usual. It can feel a bit like we are living in a pressure cooker and as a result, our differences surface more readily and we become irritated more quickly.
Typically, each of us handles conflict in one of three very different ways. Somemanage their feelings like ‘ostriches’ with a ‘head in the sand’ approach; they just push those feelings down and hope they go away.
Others behave defensively like a hedgehog and become very prickly with their partners.
Meanwhile, a third group are more explosive like rhinos; they just put their heads down and charge.
In any relationship, the two people involved need to acknowledge how they handle conflict and then work together to implement a plan for how they will handle it as a couple. Before we can even begin this process of reflection and resolution, we need to feel safe to open up to one another, without fear of judgement or rejection.
For example, the hedgehogs may need to make a conscious effort to express their feelings to their partners, withholding critical tongues, whilst rhinos may need to be deliberate in their attempts to control their tempers. Based on their different anger styles, couples need to work out how to create this safe space where problems can be analysed and diffused objectively, without escalating again into full-scale conflict.
The Anger Iceburg is another psychological concept which can help us to deal effectively with conflict. Icebergs are known for having a much bigger mass under the water than on top. The ‘tip of the iceberg’, the part we can see on top of the water can sometimes equate to about 1/8 of the iceberg. In the realm of conflict, we can imagine this part of the iceberg as the visual and obvious expression of our ‘anger,’ whether that is expressed explosively like a rhino, or in a rather prickly way like a hedgehog. To talk well and resolve conflict effectively we need to address the 7/8 of the iceberg that is under the surface. These are the emotions that trigger our anger and need addressing. Underlying problems like insecurity, jealousy, fear are feelings which need to be processed in order to help us deal with areas of conflict in our relationships effectively.
It can help to talk about issues as they arise rather than saving them up. In their excellent ‘Marriage Course,’ Nicky and Sila Lee use a similar analogy of a blocked drain. In the long run, it’s far less messy to keep a drain clear regularly than it is to unblock a backed-up drain. Effective communication and processing of underlying emotions can help us keep our ‘relationship drains’ clear! It can also be helpful to deal with any issues we encounter by facing them together rather than against each other. This helps us not to blame our partner automatically, because the issue becomes ‘our’ problem rather than ‘mine’ or ‘theirs.’ By putting problems out in front of ‘us’ rather than between us we take on conflict ‘as a team’.