by Dr. Sebastian Bailey
Another slammed door, another argument, another conversation that only ends with hurt feelings. If you’ve noticed a negative pattern in your interactions and wondered where things are going wrong, you’ve already taken the first step—recognizing recurrent conflict.
So why do we repeatedly find ourselves in variations of the same conflict?
At first, it may not be obvious that the same thing is happening over and over again. But these moments of drama give us what we need. In a perverse way, feeding into this pattern of conflict can be satisfying because it is familiar, it reinforces our world view, and it gives us an emotional fix, even if it’s a negative one.
Over time, these recurring arguments become a sort of game we play in order to get attention from another person and confirm our role in that relationship. When we feel insecure, entering into this kind of interaction provides a temporary solution: we have a role and it’s familiar, so it gives us a sense of security.
What are these roles exactly? There are three roles that people typically take on:
- The Persecutor sees himself or herself as “correct” or superior in some way and will work to get the other person to “agree” with him or her.
- The Rescuer wants to be valued or appreciated so he or she will offer advice, support or possible solutions.
- Victims believe they are somehow “less than” the other person, so they look for a Persecutor to mistreat them or a Rescuer to confirm they can’t cope.
Typically, the game will begin when two people adopt their individual roles and it will end when one person moves into a new role, forcing the other person to take on a different one. As long as you have a willing playmate, you can play these games over and over again.
And ironically, recurrent conflicts, like these, are common in some of our most intimate relationships. After all, these are the people who meet our needs—both positive and negative. Find someone in a complementary role, and you’ve got a good match!
However, even though these patterns are normal, they can be painful. To prevent a build-up of resentment and hurt and improve your relationships, you have to put a stop to the game-playing. Here are four strategies to help you end or avoid conflict:
- Break the habit.
Become conscious of what’s going on, and recognize when you start to enter into one of your typical games. To start, you may have to reflect on a recent incident—identify your role, what triggered the game, and how it played out. By sharing your observations with the other person, over time, you’ll both be able to see when you’re slipping into the routine and alert each other, instantly defusing the tension.
- Stop the game before it starts.
These patterns may feel irresistible, but you have the power to control your behavior. If you were lured into the conflict, what was the hook? Or if you lured in the other person, what bait did you use? Figuring out what triggers the game allows you to stop it from the first sign of trouble, think about what you truly want out of the interaction and engage with the other person in a more constructive way.
- Leave the game halfway through.
The final move in a recurring game comes with the switching of roles, which leaves both parties feeling bad. But until that point, you still have the opportunity to avoid that painful outcome. When you find yourself in the midst of a game, take pause and consider what you were going to say next. Knowing that your “typical” reaction will only continue the game to its fateful end, choose a different response that will diffuse the situation instead.
- Remember that tomorrow is another day.
If you get sucked in and can’t stop the game before it’s too late, don’t give up. Look at the past as a “losing streak.” Those experiences will make it easier to avoid the game next time. Use the knowledge and awareness you’ve gained to help you in the future.
By understanding the games we play, the roles we adopt, and the strategies we can use to avoid these conflicts, we have the potential to change our behavior and improve our most important relationships. We can cultivate a greater sense of positivity and fulfillment at work, at home, in our everyday lives.