From Conflict to Support: Tips for Healthy Relationships

Posted on Wed, Nov 23, 2016 @ 04:20 PM

iStock-174915986.jpgTraditionally at this time of year I’ve posted about gratitude for those cherished relationships that mean so much to us. It’s easy to point to the abundant research telling us that emotionally supportive relationships, and our expressions of gratitude for them, are crucial to good physical and mental health. But what is a supportive relationship? Does “supportive” mean our spouse or friend is always in complete agreement with us? When their opinions and preferences don’t mesh with ours, does that make them “unsupportive”?

Certainly life would be monotonous if we were all identical—and clearly we are not—so we might expect to encounter conflicting agendas even among those with whom we feel the closest bonds. The good thing is that conflict in a healthy relationship can be a welcome springboard for personal growth as well as for growth within the relationship.

But how do you know whether your relationship is healthy or destructive? One way to tell is to look at how conflict is handled when it (inevitably) occurs. 

In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that one key to handling conflict constructively is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Physiologically, scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight and freeze,” but awareness of three such dimensions is not really a modern thing. As Alibrando points out, one ancient writer known simply as Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) describes what essentially amounts to similar dimensions using the terms “power, love and a sound mind” (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).

All three dimensions contribute something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each has a negative side when not balanced by the other two. For instance, if you operate primarily in Red mode (fight/power), you are highly attuned to differences between yourself and others. In other words, your first emotional instinct is to diverge. In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.

In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to fight; you want to focus on similarities. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.

In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow becomes isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.

In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode would go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating into a hole, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, choosing compliance simply to appease the other.

Most of us have a tendency to rely on a habitual approach that may favor one or two of these dimensions. But with a little self-awareness we can recognize our weak areas and tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. Fortunately, the changes we make to our own reactivity can influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome.

To reach the overall outcome we want (i.e., a healthy approach to conflict), Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).

Perhaps you’re an Orange (Yellow and Red) or a Purple (Red and Blue). Or maybe a Green (Yellow and Blue). You probably wouldn’t try sitting on a stool with only two legs, would you? Just as that third leg forms a plane and offers stability for the stool, so when we have these three interpersonal dimensions in balance, we are more likely to have stability in our relationships.

If Alibrando’s model seems to echo ancient concepts, perhaps it’s because these concepts are as relevant today as ever. As we “work the triangle,” we are essentially working toward exercising power, love, and a sound mind in our interactions with others. In doing so, we reap the benefits of a universal law that governs healthy relationships and opens the door to the kind of supportive connections we can truly be grateful for.



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A Cross of Iron

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Tags: conflict, relationships, family, human emotion

It's No Party but I'll Cry if I Want To

Posted on Wed, Jan 14, 2009 @ 03:43 PM
You should cry too, if it happens to you . . .
is crying beneficial

We know the drill. Big girls don't cry; boys—big or little—don't cry at all.

But don't they really? And why shouldn't they? Even though we've all felt the need to cry at one time or another it can be too easy to disparage someone else's need to cry. We may forget those experiences of our own which have prompted such a need, or deny someone else's need on the basis that we've survived our own drama—and after all, how could theirs be worse?

Why do stigmas attached to the act of crying persist? Why do some people avoid this display of emotion at all costs, even if an event justifies a crying response?

Sadly, some people can't cry because of physical restrictions imposed by diseases such as emphysema. But others restrain themselves for social reasons. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with expressing their emotions, especially in the presence of others. However, researchers writing in December's issue of the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggest that it is precisely in the presence of supportive others that crying is most beneficial. 

"Crying behavior punctuates the lifecourse," begins psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg and his colleagues, "from our start as helpless infants through adulthood, . . . tears can mark both our most important moments and the most mundane of events. A capacity to cry is part of being human." 

The researchers then ask the obvious question: "Is it important for our well-being?"  Acknowledging that some laboratory situations fail to uncover the benefits of crying while others have done so with certainty, the researchers set out to analyze the cause of the divergent results and to ascertain whether (and when) crying may indeed be beneficial.

In the process, they came up with two reasons why some studies fail to reproduce positive results: the imprecise timing of their measurements and failure to provide a social context within the studies.

Why do these factors matter so much? 

As crying episodes unfold, they begin with arousing effects (such as increased heart rate) but they also develop calming effects (such as slowed breathing). Depending on the timing of measurements, the distress and arousal effects could be more prominent than the calming effects—which actually last much longer than the arousing effects.

But according to Rottenberg and his associates, social context proved to be especially important in the final analysis. "Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than were criers who did not report receiving social support," they said. "Likewise, mood benefits were more likely when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved than they were when events were unresolved."

Though these points may seem self-evident to anyone outside the laboratory who has cried on a friend's shoulder, unfortunately many past studies have failed to factor in any kind of social context.

Other factors that affect the benefits of a crying episode include individual personality traits as well as the affective state of the person crying.  For instance, the researchers found that patients with mood disorders or anxiety symptoms were less likely to reap the benefits of their crying episodes.

However, other studies have shown that people with mood disorders and anxiety symptoms do reap the benefits of social support.

Their conclusion? "Additional laboratory and field studies are needed to isolate specific features in the social environment that mediate psychological benefits, whether these are situational characteristics, physical comforting behaviors (such as an arm around one's shoulder), or other types of social support (such as verbal behaviors)."

Though most of us will wait with bated breath for the results of any studies to be done along these lines, anyone who has been on the receiving end of these support behaviors could probably already hazard a wild guess as to what will be found.

Tags: family psychology, research family, family studies, human emotion, social psychology