Conflict in Post-Issue Relationships

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


Post issue relationships are ones where both partners have the awareness and skill to stay connected in warmth and acceptance all the time, with frequent adjustments from irritation, anxiety, doubt, guilt, and frustration into problem solving and warm feeling towards each other.

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!

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