Interpersonal conflict is some of the worst stress we encounter. As humans, we strive for social connection. When conflict happens or we fear it happening, it’s normal to experience a wide range of intense emotions.
In this article I’ll explore real, perceived, and anticipatory conflict in relationships, how it impacts us, and what we can do about it.
External events that cause uncertainty in relationships
External events are things that happen outside of us to us. It’s an action of a particular person or an event in our environment. Here are some examples:
- Less frequent contact
- No reply to a text, email, or phone calls
- Cold or closed off demeanor from a person
- A person lying or being deceiving
- A third-party hinting a person is mad at you
Internal events that cause uncertainty in relationships
Internal events are anything that happen internally for us. It could be thoughts, emotions, or a behavior:
- Random, imagined scenarios uncontrollably entering your mind
- Worst-case scenarios entering your mind
- Replaying and analyzing recent interactions (rumination)
- Strong emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness
- Physical sensations: heart palpitations, sweating, muscle tension
Why distinguish between external and internal events?
Identifying what is triggering the uncertainty about the relationship is key to addressing it.
Often a trigger is a mixture of external and internal events. They don’t happen in isolation of one another: a external event happens to us, and we have a certain internal reaction to it.
However, it’s not rare that the events are exclusively internal: a thought pops into our mind, we have an emotional response to it, and our mind latches on and runts with it.
If it’s exclusively internal, it’s usually a clear sign that it’s our own stuff we need to deal with. It has nothing to do with the other person(s), even though our focus and blame might be aimed there.
Automatic thoughts: what we don’t have control over
We have zero control over what pops into our brains. Clients I work with are often relieved to hear this because it’s easy for us to identify with our thoughts. That is, we believe what pops into our mind is who we are: “Well it popped into my brain. It is my brain. So, I must be responsible for the creation of the thoughts. It’s who I am”
You are not responsible for the creation of the weird, bizarre, illegal, crazy junk that pops into your mind. You did not create it.
And all that junk that pops up, it’s completely normal. We all do it. We just don’t go around talking about it. If we did, we wouldn’t have any friends. That’s why we go to therapy.
When we worry, automatic thoughts are at play. Some may be realistic, others are distortions of reality.
Cognitive distortions and relationships
Whether it’s an internal or external event we’re dealing with, cognitive distortions are usually a variable. Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that distort our reality. They are completely normal, but they are flaws in our thinking.
Here are some that are common when we’re preoccupied with a certain interaction or relationship:
Mind Reading – Our minds convince us we know, for certain, what’s going on inside someone else’s mind. For example, a friend makes a certain facial expression and we are convinced the person is mad at us.
Emotional Reasoning – “I feel afraid, therefore there must be a threat.” Just because we feel afraid doesn’t mean there’s an actual threat. And often times our minds look for and create situations to match or internal experience. That is, we create problems that don’t actually exist.
Black and White Thinking – Our brains love to put life into simple boxes: my partner is either completely happy with me or completely angry at me. In reality, rarely is a situation all good or all bad. And rarely is a person 100% trustworthy or 100% untrustworthy. Life is full of grey.
Catastrophizing – Our minds convince us that the worst possible outcome is going to happen. “My friend is mad at me and he’s going to turn everyone else against me. I’ll soon have no friends at all.” Catastrophizing thoughts are usually the culprit when we’re experiencing anxiety.
Personalization – Our minds can blame us for things we’re not at fault for. Maybe a friend is being short and we have a thought, “I must have done something. It must be me.” When in reality, maybe the friend is just having a rough day, completely unrelated to us.
Cognitive distortions are not something to beat yourself up about. They are completely normal. We all experience them.
Attempting to stop the thoughts doesn’t work
In 2018, a study was published that looked at thought suppression (i.e., trying to stop certain thoughts) and involuntary “mental time traveling,” that is, unintentionally thinking of the past or present.
The study found that when people attempt to get rid of certain thoughts about the future or past, the thoughts came back more often.
This means when we or someone else tells us to “Just stop thinking about it,” it doesn’t only not work, it makes it worse
This is very important with worry and automatic thoughts.
Rumination and worry
So, we’ve established what we don’t have control over. What do we have control over then?
When we worry, it’s likely that we’re ruminating.
Dr. Michael Greenberg, a specialist is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder defines rumination as follows:
Rumination is making a choice to engage in mental problem solving, which includes analyzing, mental reviewing, mental checking, visualizing, monitoring, and directing your focus toward the problem.
There’s a key difference between rumination and productive problem solving though. Productive problem solving is directing your attention toward something and finding a resolution to the problem. It’s over and done with.
Rumination is engaging with the thoughts over and over again without any resolution.
It’s not that you’re not smart enough or that you haven’t thought about the problem long enough. It’s that the problem isn’t able to be solved.
When we worry about someone being mad at us, we are engaging in problem solving an issue that is impossible to resolve on our own. The only way to be 100% certain that someone is not mad at you is by seeing inside their mind. This is impossible.
Being cautious with reassurance seeking
“But, I don’t need to be a mind reader. I can simply ask them if they are mad at me.”
Maybe, but probably not.
Logically, it makes perfect sense to go directly to the source. In reality though, getting reassurance is often a reinforcement of the worry.
And if you tend to worry a lot about the possibility of someone being mad at you, the issue is likely not the automatic thought and it’s not the other person. Both of which you have zero control over.
The issue is the rumination. That is, the choice to actively engage with the unsolvable problem.
If you worry often about relationships, it’s likely that when you do seek out reassurance, it brings short lived, temporary relief. But, long-term, you find yourself back to the same worry: “Is he mad at me?”
Observe and don’t engage
So, what do we do? We can’t stop the thoughts. If we try, it will just make it worse. And we also can’t answer the question. Even when we get the answer straight from the source, it doesn’t work.
The only other choice is to observe our automatic thoughts and choose not to engage.
We watch our thoughts like a passing weather system.
When it’s mostly sunny, this is easier. When it’s a hurricane, the pull to engage and the pull to seek reassurance is strong.
When we notice ourselves engaging, we simply label what we’re doing: “I’m engaging with the worry.”
It’s common to go back and forth between being aware, to letting our thoughts hook us, and then back to being aware of being hooked.
The more we notice, and the more frequent we make it a point to be an observer of our thoughts, rather than a participant, the easier it becomes to stay the observer side in the future.
Go to the worst place on purpose
Another exercise that can be helpful is to intentionally go to the worst possible outcome in your mind.
What if he is mad at me? Then what?
Well, then he might not want to be my friend any more. And if that happens, then what?
Well, I’ll lose my best friend and I’ll be very sad. And if that happens, then what?
Keep asking yourself the “Then what?” question until you’ve arrived at the very thing you’re trying to avoid. What we usually find is that sure, it’s something we don’t want to happen. But, it’s also something that we can easily survive.
Identify your core belief
All of us hold certain beliefs about ourselves. It’s a narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Core beliefs drive our automatic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Take this example situation of two different people going through the same event:
Event: invites John out for dinner on Saturday. Friday night, John sends a short text message: “Can’t make it tomorrow.”
|A||“I’m unlovable”||Thought: “John’s mad at me”|
Feeling: Anxiety, sadness
Behavior: Seek reassurance
|B||“I’m lovable”||Thought: “I hope John’s ok”|
Feeling: Slightly disappointed
Behavior: Makes plans with another friend
Same event. Completely different outcomes.
And most of the time, all of this is being done behind the scenes, without us being aware. In a sense, we’re completely out of control and at mercy to these invisible drivers.
However, we can make them visible and take back control.
One technique you can do on your own is what’s called the downward arrow method.
You first start with a situation and notice what the automatic thought is. Let’s take for example texting a friend and them never replying. The thought, “They’re mad at me” instantly pops into your head.
Next you ask yourself, “What does that mean to me if that’s true.”
“Well it means that he doesn’t like me.” So, you ask yourself again. “What does that mean if that’s true.”
“Well it means that I’m not good enough.”
There you have it. You have arrived at a core belief: “I’m not good enough.”
Why do negative automatic thoughts pop into your mind? Likely because of your core belief. Why do you have intense emotions in certain situations. Likely because of your core belief.
Attachment theory in psychology says that our early relationships with our caregivers mold how we relate to others throughout the rest of our adult lives. That is, we develop internal working models or templates of how relationships work.
There are three styles of attachment:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious attachment
- Avoidant attachment
A person with a secure attachment style, generally believes people will be there for them. Their relationships are generally consistent and balanced.
A person with an anxious attachment style worries that others in their lives will leave them. They often seek reassurance that others love them and will be there for them.
A person with avoidant attachment believes others will not be there in times of need. There is distrust and therefore a high motivation to be independent, and a general avoidance of placing themselves in situations where they rely on others.
How is this relevant?
It can be helpful to think about which attachment style you might fall into. If anxious attachment sounds like you, this is great information to carry with you going forward.
It can be a helpful reminder that reassurance is not the answer, but instead, working on your attachment style and core belief is.
Just like core beliefs, attachment styles aren’t set in stone.
Building your tolerance for uncertainty
Uncertainty is tough. At the same time, seeking certainty is like a drug. It’s never enough.
Building your tolerance for uncertainty is like building muscles. It takes time and consistency.
It also takes practicing awareness and intention.
Be aware of your urge to seek reassurance. And try hard to not give in. Instead, label your urge: “I’m having an urge to get reassurance. I know where this is going to lead.”
By simply labeling our self talk and urges, we move into the logical parts of our brain, where we have control over our impulses, and out of the emotional part, where we have little control.
Also, practice developing different perspectives on situations. Make it into a game to see how many alternatives you can come with that contradict your core belief:
- “Yes, John could be mad me, but there’s other possibilities too”
- “He could be very busy”
- “He could have had a family emergency”
- “Maybe his girlfriend broke up with him”
- “Maybe someone else got ahold of his phone and texted that”
This is helpful because it takes our focus away from trying to obtain certainty and moving towards automatic negative thoughts that confirm our core beliefs. By doing this on a regular basis, our brain learns that it can confront the intense emotions head on.
We are trading short-term relief, for long-term gain.
Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759-775.
Clark, G. I., Rock, A. J., Clark, L. H., & Murray‐lyon, K. (2020). Adult attachment, worry and reassurance seeking: Investigating the role of intolerance of uncertainty. Clinical Psychologist, 24(3), 294-305. doi:10.1111/cp.12218
Del Palacio-Gonzalez, A., & Berntsen, D. (2018). The tendency for experiencing involuntary future and past mental time travel is robustly related to thought suppression: An exploratory study. Psychological Research, 83(4), 788-804. doi:10.1007/s00426-018-1132-2
Greenberg, M. (2020, October 20). Defining rumination. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://drmichaeljgreenberg.com/defining-rumination/
Riaz, A., & Jamil, K. (2020, July). Love Can Only Make Things Work Out: CBT And Interpersonal Therapy Case Study. In Technium Conference (Vol. 5, pp. 18-07).
Sally Planalp, James M. Honeycutt, Events that Increase Uncertainty in Personal Relationships, Human Communication Research, Volume 11, Issue 4, June 1985, Pages 593–604, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1985.tb00062.x