How Healthy Relationships Manage Conflict

Dr. Keith Witt Defenses, Emotional, Interpersonal, Love & Intimacy, Psychology, Video, Witt & Wisdom: Live with Dr. Keith

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Watch as Dr. Keith and Corey discuss “post-issue relationships” — relationships where both partners have the awareness and skill to stay connected in warmth and acceptance all the time, where challenges such as irritation, anxiety, doubt, guilt, and frustration can be transmuted into problem solving and warm feelings towards each other.

What Are Post-Issue Relationships?
by Dr. Keith Witt

Conflicts happen all the time in intimate relationships. The ideal goal in any conflict is to get back to love in seconds. This requires both partners to immediately recognize conflicts as they arise and shift instantly into mutual understanding, some progress, and shared warmth. Such efficient processing needs huge capacities for self-awareness, flexibility, adaptability, and self-correction—all necessary in post issue relationships. In post issue relationships both partners are experts at quickly getting back to love in most conflicts, and soon in the more difficult conflicts. They never lose faith in their ability or their partner’s abilities to resolve conflict into warmth.

Anger and fear are tricky
All the emotions are important—both the pleasurable ones and the painful ones. All are designed to help us act. Emotions arise as background music of states designed to guide us through life. States come from our Shadow-selves, our adaptive unconscious, in response to what we experience. Their purpose is to guide us. Each state involves emotions, stories, action tendencies, and a moral valence (I/you are being good/bad).

Our unconscious generally acts to provide emotional support that is proportionate to the stories we generate and elaborate about the world. For example:

  • Someone frowns at you and you feel mild anxiety and irritation.
  • Someone screams in your face and you feel intense fear and anger.
  • A stranger smiles and nods and you feel warmth and friendliness.
  • Your lover looks into your eyes and says, “I love you so much!” and you feel an overwhelming upwelling of tenderness and sexual desire.
  • The kind and intensity of emotions support the real story of what’s happening.

Disproportionate defensive emotions
Anger, fear, disgust, and shame are tricky. They can arise disproportionately in response to threats, attacks, mistakes, or moral condemnations. When they arise with stories of threat or wrongdoing, our Shadow selves can take the initial story, distort it towards the negative, and generate disproportionate levels of emotion to support the distorted stories.

You leave the milk out of the fridge and I am irritated at the mistake. I’ve told you several times the milk might sour and, more importantly, it makes me mad when I see it out. You have trouble remembering to put the milk away and forgot again this time. My anger causes me to distort the story into “You know I hate you leaving the milk out, and you deliberately did it because you don’t care about what I want!” Now my anger is proportionate to my distorted story of you not caring, but not to the real story of you making a minor mistake.

In post issue relationships, all the above starts, but is immediately recognized and regulated by both partners. I see the milk, feel a flash of anger that you didn’t remember to put it away, notice that I’m creating a negative story, and remind myself that you forgot and that this habit seems to be a difficult one for you to learn. I say kindly, “You left the milk out again.” You are alarmed at my irritation and begin to defend, “I was in a hurry because I was late and…” Then you catch yourself, “I’m sorry! I’m trying to learn to consistently put it away and I’m obviously not there yet.” I respond with warmth, “No problem. I’ll keep reminding you as gently as I can.” We both smile and the conflict has been resolved. This is an example of conflict in a post issue relationship.

To quote from my last blog on post issue relationships:

Post-issue relationships are the goal of all psychotherapies.

In a post-issue relationship, each problem is an opportunity to grow and love. A post-issue relationship still has problems, resentments, doubts, and selfish or thoughtless injuries, but there is always an adjustment to love in response to pain or distortion. We exist in intersubjective and intrasubjective energetic containers which we constantly cocreate with the world. There’s a luminous quality of a container where you are never caught in distress with your partner or yourself for longer than seconds or minutes. Post-issue intersubjectivity with others is a lower left sweet spot, just as post-issue intrasubjectivity is an upper left sweet spot.”

The programming metaphor
If we consider states to be multiple programs that our unconscious activates to deal with current situations, we see that some programs are cooperative and collaborative—like a fun conversation, and some are competitive and damaging—like an escalating conflict.

In normal relationships, divisive or distorted individual programs get activated in both partners, often leading to escalating conflict programs that the couple unconsciously enact in ways that create injuries and degrade intimacy.

In post issue relationships divisive or distorted individual programs get activated in both partners, but are immediately recognized and switched out for collaborative and compassionate programs which create progress and enhance intimacy.

This requires highly sophisticated self-awareness and self-corrective skills being used simultaneously by both partners, but is worth the effort!

In a post-issue relationship, each problem is an opportunity to grow and love. A post-issue relationship still has problems, resentments, doubts, and selfish or thoughtless injuries, but there is always an adjustment to love in response to pain or distortion. We exist in intersubjective and intrasubjective energetic containers which we constantly cocreate with the world. There’s a luminous quality of a container where you are never caught in distress with your partner or yourself for longer than seconds or minutes. Post-issue intersubjectivity with others is a lower left sweet spot, just as post-issue intrasubjectivity is an upper left sweet spot.

Whether a therapist is working with an individual, couple, family, or group, the organizing principle of the work, whether consciously or unconsciously, is guiding them towards cocreating stable post-issue relationships.

Post-issue relationships with all our interior selves, memories, and stories
The same principles of interpersonal post-issue relationships hold true for intrapersonal post-issue relationships.

Is Wise Self calling the shots?
The most crucial dimension of a post-issue relationship intrapersonally is whether Wise Self is calling the shots for understanding and action. Is Wise Self in charge of the inner community? Is Wise Self helping all states? Do we notice when Wise Self is superseded or suspended, and regulate back to Wise Self being in charge?

When we get lost in a painful affect or distorted story we are not anchored in Wise Self, but instead are entangled in an issue. When we think dishonestly or behave badly in victory/defeat, success/failure, getting it right/making mistakes, we feel disconnected from Wise Self and are entangled in an issue.

We enter non-optimal states all the time!
Instinctive shifts to defensive, selfish, lazy, immature, clueless, uncaring, arrogant, aggressive, frightened, self-loathing, shut down, or other non-optimal states happen all the time! When they occur, we deal with them for better or worse.

Better is post-issue consciousness — Integral mindfulness sourced in Wise Self.

Worse is indulging impulses, elaborating on distorted stories, and increasing disconnections of all kinds.
Post-issue consciousness gets easier and easier the more you practice. Difficult states still show up but are less painful because they’re regulated efficiently with love and wisdom.

The idea that personal work or spiritual practice can eliminate distressed states and painful emotions is a false promise. Committing to keep getting better at loving and accepting all your states and selves, and everyone else’s states and selves, is a promise everyone can keep.

How?
Like all mammals, our unconscious constantly instantiates both optimal and non-optimal states instantly in 30 or 40 milliseconds as we navigate our inner and outer existence. Our self-aware human conscious selves can notice these shifts within one or two seconds. At that moment we can learn to invite Wise Self to be in charge, and Wise Self will always deliver if we allow it to. The more relentlessly and effectively we access Wise Self to be in charge and call the shots in all situations, the more we are moving towards post-issue relationships and consciousness.

Most of our growing up, waking up, showing up, and cleaning up efforts involve activating and trusting our Wise self. I believe that between three and four a child’s nervous system integrates into an immature version of Wise Self—a self that cares for others and harmonizes with all six moral foundations—but this young version is tenuous and elusive, easily deactivated by the demands of normal development. This emergent Wise Self becomes both obscured and strengthened through normal development but continues to influence moral discernment and reach for the beautiful, good, and true. All spiritual seekers are instinctively struggling to become their Wise Self—to feel their executive ego, their “I,” consistently as Wise Self.

Every developmental stage has embedded blindspots where Wise Self is compromised by cultural learning and demands. At 2nd tier altitudes we have capacities to sense such distortions as they arise and regulate to Wise Self. When we won’t, can’t, or don’t make such adjustments, we have almost always regressed to a 1st tier destructive Shadow state.

Post-issue relationships with others
We are so relational! We crave each other. The best, most powerful and pleasurable intimacy is a post-issue relationship, where partners are confident in getting back to love through anything and feel a responsibility to keep opening their partner with love, interest, appreciation, and tenderness.

This is fiendishly difficult! Why? There are major difficulties in post-issue relationships with others:
We need an intrapersonal post-issue relationship with our many selves to be able to sustain an interpersonal post-issue relationship with others. Otherwise, blind spots will occasionally dominate our reactions, disconnecting us from Wise Self and making us less trustable.

Our nervous system is constantly changing states of consciousness in response to inner and outer cues, and many of those states were learned when we were immature, defended, being indoctrinated, or just shut down. Our unconscious gets a familiar trigger and sends a quickly accelerating state learned in stress at a younger age to protect us. Wise Self can catch that need for protection and provide superior strategies and quick relief, but it requires complex self-awareness and conscious effort.

Partners can cooperate in post-issue consciousness by regulating themselves and appreciating our efforts. When partners can’t or won’t inhabit post-issue consciousness themselves, their distressed states pull us towards our own distress, making it much more difficult to self-regulate.

We never completely stop distressed states from arising, but we can learn to become instantly aware of them and regulate them into states of Wise Self in charge. When we can confidently do this alone or with others in any situation, we are in a stable post-issue consciousness.

The capacities to be consistently aware of distressed states and regulate them to Wise Self requires post-formal operational cognition and Integral altitude on many lines—including the self-line, the integration-of-defenses line, the interpersonal line, the moral line, the psychosocial line, and the psychosexual line. Growth on all these lines is of course possible, and the higher we climb, the more discerning and capable we become.

Post-issue relationships with ourselves and others are goals of all psychotherapies
Existential psychologist Carl Jung called the integration of our various selves “Individuation.” Family therapy founder Murray Bowen called integrating the self, “Differentiation.” Attachment theorists call it having a “Secure autonomous autobiographical narrative.” Alfred Adler called it “Confident in our adult capabilities and viewing others as comrades.” Richard Schwartz, originator of Internal Family Systems (IFS) literally organizes his whole therapy around helping “Wise Self” be in charge. However characterized, the universal psychotherapeutic goal is finding that interior core of Wisdom and love and putting that self in charge of how we think, act, relate, and process, no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in—thus generating post-issue relationships with ourselves and others.

Sexy post-issue relationships
In post-issue relationships you feel the importance of kindness, humor, and generosity and learn to enjoy lighting up and supporting your partner. Sex and affection are prioritized. Issues get resolved into mutual warmth and attraction. Play and fun are the standard. You forgive your partner for imperfections and gratefully cherish him or her consistently.


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Dr. Keith Witt

About Keith Witt

Dr. Keith Witt is a Licensed Psychologist, teacher, and author who has lived and worked in Santa Barbara, CA. for over forty years. Dr. Witt is also the founder of The School of Love.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996. Corey is also a professional woodworker, and many of his artworks can be found in his VisionLogix art gallery.