CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

One of the greatest services the dispute resolution professional can provide is an entirely
different perspective for people locked into conflict, who can only see the subject of their
conflict. This is particularly true with intimate partners enduring the rupture of their relationship.
These poor distressed souls are so hyper-focused on the subject(s) of their dispute, they are shorn
of the tools that would allow them to escape from their terrible, painful dance.
Each person may bring their own army of supporters to underscore the rightness of their
position, as they are embedded in any number of subsystems in their own lives – their families of
origin, their girl or boyfriends, the subsystem within these groups of the ones who have gotten
divorced. All tug on the individuals before you, giving advice, vilifying the other person.
Careful inquiry into the existence, composition and messages of these subsystems will help
untangle these strands of the web and allow the individuals a clearer, cleaner approach to the task
at hand.
The reactivity which plagues intimate partners in disputes is particularly intense because
almost always, there are very deep, very old personal themes that are activated (usually outside
the awareness of each person). Brent Atkinson in his excellent Emotional Intelligence in
Couples Therapy identifies four discrete themes which bring couples into gridlock (and which, if
not addressed, will carry through to dissolution). Atkinson describes these as different and
legitimate ways by which individuals can experience emotional stability. It is important to
identify these different styles, because almost invariably each partner tends to pathologize the
other – so that both are expending enormous energy in defending themselves – energy that could
be put to use at understanding the other and finding avenues for moving on. Instead they become
locked into their dance. The different styles identified by Atkinson are: Independence First vs.
Togetherness First (in which one person’s basic need is for a sense of space or freedom while the
other needs to have a sense of emotional connection); Invest in the Future vs. Live for the
Moment (in which one person feels like all responsibilities need to be handled before they can
relax and the other is petrified the life will pass them by while they are doing all the things they
“have to” do); Predictability First vs. Spontaneity First (in which on person needs a minimum of
chaos for stability and the other wants nothing more than a fellow traveler to explore the
adventures of life); Problem Solving First vs. Understanding First (aka, lawyers and their14
spouses). The key to these and other differences are that they represent completely
understandable (and polar opposite) methods for achieving emotional stability and it is painfully
easy for anyone of feel completely misunderstood and judged by the other. Any reader
struggling with one of the above challenges in their intimate relationship will not have difficulty
coming up with the judgments they throw at the other and the different judgments they have, in
turn, thrown at them. People in the grip of these gridlocked conflicts feel profoundly
misunderstood and dismissed by their partners – causing enormous defensiveness and reactivity.
It is vitally important that any dispute resolution professional dealing with issues such as
these be mindful of their own struggles along these lines. As noted by Atkinson, these attitudes
represent the efforts of individuals to establish a sense of emotional stability for themselves. As
such, it is likely that each attitude represents a response to early, meaningful life experiences.
Oftentimes these experiences as quite early in our life and, therefore, beyond our immediate
conscious awareness. As this is true for our clients, it will also be true for us. Therefore, we will
need to be particularly vigilant to avoid automatic alliance with the individual who happens to
share our own (unconscious) style. We will, of course, be easy marks for those who share our
predilection and who want to triangle us in.
If we are able to maintain our awareness of process over content and the systemic vs. the
individual context for understanding interpersonal stresses and disputes, we may well be able to
pull many rabbits out of hats that our clients didn’t even know existed. That’s why a systems
perspective can be an invaluable inclusion in any dispute professionals tool kit.

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