Do you ever wonder why you and your partner always seem to fight in the same way?
The same eye rolling, arm crossing, turning away or finger pointing happens between couples, parents and kids, strangers and coworkers, in every car, bedroom, bus, and boardroom the world over. But, few of us understand the patterns we keep playing out. I am here to tell you that the way you fight is not unique, random nor unrehearsed.
More importantly, does the way you fight — especially with your most intimate sparring partner — actually work?
In this article, I will reveal to you the three shapes of conflict. By the time you finish your read, you will be able to clearly spot exactly what you and your partner are doing to stay enmeshed in a pattern of conflict that is corroding the trust, respect and love in your relationship.
You will also have some solid tips as to what you need to do to evolve the shape of your conflicts so that your disagreements actually end up bringing you closer together.
Some Background and Context…
I am writing this because after years of teaching kids, parents and motivated adults to do conflict better, I still fight with my wife. I am neither ashamed or proud of this. It’s a fact of life. Our past conflicts used to drive us apart. At one point it dawned on me that if we didn’t figure out a better way to fight, we would not last as couple. Now, the way we navigate the same conflicts (yup, we still fight about the same things) instead help us to grow deeper in our trust, respect, and love for one another.
My learning to fight in ways that are more constructive and healthy really started for me in my twenties (two decades ago) when I was handed this little known book, “Aikido in Everyday Life: Giving in to Get your Way” by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller. Once I absorbed their incisive analysis and practical advice, I could not look at another tense and heated interaction the same way again.
To begin your discovery, I invite you to start by reflecting on this question:
Thinking of your last fight with you partner (or significant loved one), how do you FEEL about that conflict?
Scan the three responses below and see which rings most true for you…
1. Still Annoyed…
You’re holding onto unresolved tensions. You want to confront them again about what they did wrong. But you also want to learn how to get your partner to respect you and see your point of view more!
If this resonates with you, look more closely at the Triangle (below).
2. Dreading a re-match
You often walk on egg shells, trying to avoid the mine field. You’d rather give in and move on quickly, than stay in the painful trenches. You want to make things better and learn all about how to create harmony.
If this resonates with you, look more closely at the Circle (below).
3. Focused on what you need to do for yourself…
You’re uncomfortable with how fights stir you both up, unsettling and diving you both. You worry about the state of the relationship, but you also don’t want to give in and lose your integrity. You’re thinking about how to rebalance your nervous system and get back into your groove.
If this resonates with you, look more closely at the Square (below).
Ok, what if you relate to all three?
That’s normal and a sign that you are versatile, but think about the response that came most quickly and naturally. That instinct is a nudge about which is your dominant conflict style, the shape you take under stress and threat (explained more as you read on below).
Introducing The 3 SHAPES of CONFLICT…
The TRIANGLE is a way of facing conflict that is the most confrontational, forward moving, piercing and direct.
The triangle is driven by a desire for truth, action, growth and mastery.
The Immature Triangle:
At it’s worst, when we face someone who is embodying the triangle, it feels like an attack (physically or verbally) on our core worth and security as a human being. They are obsessed with “my way or the highway” mentality and always appearing right.
Without balance and in it’s raw form, the triangular style of fighting shows up as agitating, blaming and picking fights to win. Eventually this war-like path leads to growing resentment, abuse, retribution and the ripping up of any remaining shreds of love and trust.
The CIRCLE’s way with conflict is to be round, flowing and indirect.
The circle is driven to be connected, loved, and approved of.
The Immature Circle:
At worst, the circle is vague, evasive and manipulative. The immature circle seeks to avoid confrontation and disapproval, but still influence the other by passive aggressive and corrosive means.
Over time, we lose a sense of the partner who is such a watery and elusive force. The triangle can also lose a sense of purpose and be incredibly flaky and non-committal.
The SQUARE’s orientation with conflict is unflinching, solid, and grounded.
It is driven by a desire for certainty, order, comfort and safety.
The Immature Square:
At its worst, the square is stubborn, like a mule who won’t budge. When we are in the immature version of the square, we may feel strong, as we stand there arms crossed, defiant, and unwilling to compromise or to see from our partner’s point of view, but this stance is actually our downfall. We have dug our heels in. We have made ourselves stuck. Nothing kills intimacy, passion and a desire to connect than thick closed walls on all sides. If we do not embrace growth and change, we become entrenched, isolated and eventually collapse.
A relationships that is rigid breaks. One which is flexible bends and weathers all kinds storms.
Do you recognize yourself having taken on one or more of these shapes during a conflict?
Are you left wondering…
“Why do we act in these ways?
Is it wired into us?
Are we doomed to keep doing conflicts badly?”
It’s not your fault.
First off, in a state of conflict, and distress, we are wired to blame — ourselves, our partner, our genes, our mental health issues — something or someone. It’s a primitive attempt at survival — to find a cause and seek to destroy it.
The real reason we do conflicts badly is two fold.
First, we are all born with an innate predisposition —temperamental traits — that makes us more likely to be good at one of these shapes and worse at the others. For example, my default setting is circle (good at deflecting attack) then square (stubborn when I have to be) and finally a triangle, which I working on evolving so as to become more skilful at direct confrontations. My wife happens to be a triangle champ, teaching me how to do confrontation better. More on evolving your shapes further below.
Second reason we do conflicts badly is that we were never taught to fight well, that is to actually resolve conflicts into new agreements and understandings. The world is full of examples of people in power doing conflict badly, showing the most immature version of these three shapes.
What about Gender Conditioning…?
Yes, there is a difference in how we are taught to do conflict badly that is coded by gender. Boys get trained to practice triangle and square strategies mostly. Meanwhile, girls get rewarded and encouraged to use circular strategies often exclusively.
Of course there are notable outliers. But, to be a woman or a man who defies their gender conditioning means fighting against social pressures which always comes with a cost.
Regardless, our true natural instincts come out somewhere. We may have to be a circle at work as a woman, but if our personality is more fiery and direct, we may explode and pick fights at home with our partner and kids. Just like there are men who play at being stubborn squares (holding their own) in a sport context but then collapse at home and default to being wobbly circles appeasing their lover.
All that to say, if the shape of our conflicts is a mix of our wiring and our upbringing, this begs the million dollar question…
So, how do we EVOLVE the shape of our CONFLICTS?
Just to summarize so far…
So, the problem is not conflict itself. Conflicts are essential to growth.
It’s also not our fault that we suck at conflicts. We were born with natural strengths and weaknesses that make us over-rely on one or two shapes — lacking the balance of all three. And, that’s understandable because we were never taught really how to do conflicts in a mature and effective way!
Below I lay out how each shape — when evolved — deals with conflict. I also outline two starting suggestions on how to evolve your primary tendency into a wiser, more balanced and effective force.
It’s important to note that evolving our way of dealing with conflict is not about just doing the same thing — with just more skill and finesse — but, rather about integrating the three shapes together into a more powerful and transformative force.
Below is a painting I made to show how the triangle, circle, and square instincts can evolve to work in harmony and unity to make us fully response-able to transform threats and conflicts (both physical and relational). I break down each part below…
The Evolved Triangle:
As a mature and balanced force, the triangle can be a strong, assertive and commanding kind of presence which both models and compels honesty, integrity and accountability. It is a force that breaks through the bullshit and leads us to make new agreements with more clarity and commitment.
How to Evolve the Triangle
For the triangle to be effective it needs to not harm the other person while still being sharp and focused on dealing with the heart of the matter. Below I painted the evolved triangle as being open on one side — making way for possibility and inclusion. What do you see? Some have told me that it looks like a roof that cuts the force and weigh of bad weather and shelters the home.
Two simple ways to evolve the triangle conflict shape, include:
- Integrating the circle and triangle. Learning to soften the edges, just enough to make your partner accept the confrontation. This can be done by easing into confrontation by starting off with a question or a gesture of warmth and connection (circle).
- Integrating the square and triangle. This looks like leaning in less to attack and blame and more settling into owning your own truth. A powerful way to disarm defensiveness and the desire to counter attack in our partners is by owning up to it if we have been too sharp (harsh or critical) and acknowledging how that may have hurt and pushed them away.
The Evolved Circle:
Balanced and mature, the circle is mutually respectful, open, and embracing of the other, looking for the win-win in every situation. Circles can be incredibly creative and adaptive showing great humour— not taking anything personally and open mindedness, always thinking of possibilities, never stuck on one way (like the immature triangle). The evolved circle is also a master of letting go, ever curious and holding a hopeful vision of the relationship.
How to Evolve the Circle
Circles need to have a clear centre and boundaries in order to focus their power, purpose, and intent. I painted this version of an evolved circle strategy to show the core which emanates outwards. Some students comment that it also looks like an eye — a symbol for awareness — which also fits in with what circles need to become the most effective and healthy.
Two simple ways to evolve the circle conflict shape, include:
- Integrating the circle with the triangle means staying round and easy going while being focused and courageous enough to step forward to face our partner fully. Integrating the triangle means speaking up about whatever is uncomfortable and needs to be said.
- Integrating the circle with the square involves resisting the desire to avoid conflicts, space out or get too much into the future of possibilities. It means staying grounded, in our bodies and dealing with the reality of how we actually get along and how we both feel about our bond at this moment.
The Evolved SQUARE
Good to take a stand sometimes, especially for what matters and force the other to respond to that boundary and declaration. At its best it is reliable, loyal, and able to shelter and protect that which is most valuable.
This painting below shows how the square can open up to be come the walls and foundation to a house, able to hold and contain what is most precious and needing protection…
How to Evolve the Square
This can only be done by addressing the underlying force driving the square: a deep seeded insecurity and a need for certainty and safety.
Two simple ways to evolve the square conflict shape, include:
- Integrating the square with the triangle looks like stepping up to come up with suggestions and taking clear action that shows your partner that you are willing to take lead, not just obstruct or stand firm. It also means embracing discomfort and growing pains as part of the price of maintaining a secure relationship.
- Integrating the square with the circle involves rolling with the desires and invitations of our partner, especially when it’s not what we want. It means we need to be willing to soften up enough to un-stick ourselves when we get hunkered down by a low mood and/or a fixed way of seeing things.
On putting these insights into practice…
Okay, now, hopefully in reading this far down you got some knowledge and awareness. But, please be aware that thinking and doing are miles apart. I don’t want to set you up to fail.
To start to transform conflicts between you and those you love, it takes much more time and practice to actually put that insight into action. Furthermore, to change how you behave in the heat of conflict — under threat and stress facing down your partner — that will take lots of practice.
But you want to do more than just read this, reflect on it briefly and default back to doing what you do later, right?
On Becoming a Student of Conflict…
The first solid step I would suggest is to begin seeing yourself as a student of conflict. Adopt the mindset of shohin (beginner’s mind) a.k.a. becoming a white belt — know nothing open to learning and willing to be confused and ask lots of questions — student.
Once upon a time, when I was twenty years old, I got off the buss heading home from a party at 2am. A friend and I were cornered by a pair of skinheads. What was most illuminating from this incident was how my friend ran to try and get away, while I froze and tried to placate them. They punched me hard in the side of the head and made my eye twitch sporadically for about ten years. The takeaway from me was how my instincts failed me. How I was terribly unprepared and unskilled at defending myself.
Owning my inadequacy in a fight was the first step to getting better at facing and transforming conflict…
This lead me to suck in my male pride and search for a dojo and a teacher. It lead to a few years of really feeling awkward and unskilled. And as I learned the art of self defence — as well as — what it takes to master intimate conflicts (see part 2 of this series to learn all about that) it meant I had to continually own up to how little I knew. Sometimes, this was a relief. Other times it was humbling and even embarrassing.
Are you willing to pay that cost to learn to do conflicts better so that you can take the lead in your relationship and start resolving fights sooner, increasing the trust, respect and love between you and your lover?
The WHO, WHAT and WHERE…
If the answer is “Yes” or even “Maybe”, then, you may be left wondering…
Who is it best to listen to and to train with in this domain?
What does it really take to evolve your long held conflict shapes and to finally stop having stupid fights with your partner?
And where is the best environment to learn about mastering intimate conflicts?
The answers to these three great question lay in part 2 and 3 of this series on Mastering Intimate Conflicts.
Because there are a lot of relationships experts out there (some brilliant and many not) and many places offering training in conflict resolution or helping couples, in part 2 of this series, I will give you a map of what to look for and what it really takes to master relationship conflicts.
See part 2, exclusively on Medium → CLICK HERE
- Here’s a quirky Guardian article about how another author read the same book about Aikido and applied it to dealing with his family over the holidays: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/21/column-change-your-life-think-aikido