Conflict arises in most relationships at some time, but men's genetic encoding may keep their emotions aroused longer. Men can learn how to deal with conflict.
“Most men care deeply about their families, their relationships, and their work. They don’t want to be in conflict, but sometimes their encoding gets in the way. The solution lies in becoming more self-aware,” says psychotherapist Jack Lafleur.
Men governed by ancient instincts
Lafleur has been a therapist for 17 years, and he also leads transformational workshops that kick-start men’s personal awareness.
He explains, “When men withdraw from situations, their partners tend to think they don’t care. The real reason is that some men don’t want to say or do something they’ll regret—because, in general, men do care.”
According to Lafleur and others who share his view, when men face conflict they may revert to their reptilian brain, the home of their fight-flight-freeze encoding. Adrenalin pumps through their bodies, the jaw and upper arms tighten, and fists form. That’s how they survived on the savannah 65,000 years ago.
“Men,” Lafleur explains, “are to some extent still governed by instinct.” The solution is to manage our reactions by “learning to operate from the frontal lobes of our brain, where we think through solutions.”
Conflict is natural
Conflicts erupt in most relationships: between lovers, among colleagues and friends, between teachers and students, and also between parents and children. The original conflict might be over an unmet commitment or a way to overcome a challenge in a work project.
It’s how we react to conflict that generates strong feelings. Although discussing our differences can draw people together—and in general women know this—many men have difficulty grasping this, given their innate fight-flight-freeze response to conflict.
There are four typical reactions to conflict in men and women:
- aggressiveness (shouting)
- passiveness (stonewalling)
- passive-aggressiveness (talking behind someone’s back)
- assertiveness (stating one’s thoughts and feelings and setting boundaries)
Of the four reactions, assertiveness has the best chance of resolving conflict. But it’s not easy for men and women to be assertive.
Genetic encoding and assertiveness
In 35 years of longitudinal studies, Dr. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, found genetic encoding in men that drives them to react quickly to situations and to stay in their state of arousal longer than women do.
Many men lack skills for dealing with their aroused state and this leads them to withdraw from their partners—stonewalling, Gottman calls it—rather than attempting to manage their conflict.
Focusing on healthy conflict
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Also known as CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy is a successful technique for resolving anxiety, which is often a factor fostering conflict. CBT brings to light what a person in conflict is imagining in a situation, and the process helps to reframe reactions in a positive light.
In CBT-like steps, a person in conflict is encouraged to
- identify the trouble spot(s)
- identify thoughts, emotions, and beliefs connected to these
- identify negative/inaccurate thinking
- then challenge this negative/inaccurate thinking
CBT is best taught by a therapist, but there are elements of CBT that anyone can use; these help to observe thoughts and feelings and, in that way, deal with conflict in all types of relationships. There are many books, courses, and interactive CDs and websites that are specifically designed for people who prefer to deal with their problems without a therapist.
By being conscious of one’s breath or by focusing on peaceful images, one learns not to react immediately. When practising mindfulness we tend to see what people say as simply their thoughts. A person in a state of mindfulness does not feel threatened by what someone else says and therefore is less likely to stay in conflict.
The ancient Greeks advised Mens sana in corpore sano (“a sound mind in a healthy body”), and their advice applies today for strengthening one’s capacity to cope with conflict. Our bodies are healthier when we cut out excessive sugar, coffee, and alcohol and when we avoid trans fats and consume healthy oils.
Eating a healthy diet, taking supplements such as vitamin C, and getting plenty of physical exercise enhance our ability to confront conflict creatively.
On the other hand, unresolved stress from conflict can contribute to diabetes, unhealthy skin, blood sugar imbalances, fatigue, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, insomnia, lowered immunity/increased susceptibility to infections, irritability, increased environmental sensitivities, and allergies.
Lafleur, who holds a third-degree black belt in karate, has witnessed martial arts as a way of channelling men’s repressed “shadow” or aggressive side in a structured manner. But he was quick to tell me that other forms of physical or self-expression help to ground us, including writing. Grounded people are better able to cope with conflict.
Lafleur recommends that his clients read resources by Dr. Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and professor at Brown University. His many books deal with marriage, but the underlying principles apply to all interpersonal relationships.
Some of Haltzman’s relationship advice is common sense, but we all need a reminder now and then.
- If you’ve been accused of not listening, reflect on how you do listen. Is it just long enough to give your own point of view? Or do you listen to hear the other person’s perspective?
- Be sure to make time to be with your partner. Life may be busy and friends may beckon, but those quality moments are important.
- Demonstrate your love and commitment in both words and actions.