Conflict spirals are patterns of perception and reaction that increase a conflict. Left unchecked, they can ultimately damage the relationship.
Conflict spirals are the result of conflict that hasn’t been attended to effectively. Conflict spirals have a runaway feeling to them, build on themselves, and follow a generally destructive path. Picture a powerful circular force like a hurricane and you’ll get the general idea of the problem with conflict spirals.
Distancing spirals are a type of conflict spiral, except that instead of leaving overt debris in its wake, the growing spiral creates distance. That distance lowers our investment in the relationship, lessens our intimacy, and increases the likelihoo we’ll harbor disappointment or resentment.
Distancing in a marriage is one example of a this kind of spiral in action. Another is the gradual distancing between a consultant and a client or between two colleagues at work. It’s not overt war, it’s avoidance and minimal communication.
Distancing spirals grow gradually, often beneath our radar. They happen one avoided or badly handled conversation at a time. Individually, none of the conversations may feel like a deal breaker. Collectively, they’re building a force that’s hard to overcome.
The key, then, is to notice and do something about them before they get so big they take on a life of their own.
When we step up and say, “I’m sensing some tension between us and I want to make sure tension doesn’t get in the way of our working relationship,” we invite the kind of conversation that can prevent long-term damage to the way we work together.
When we step up and say, “I feel us growing apart and it scares me,” we open the door to the kind of conversation that can alter the trajectory of a marriage.
I understand it takes a certain courage to run toward the distancing spiral instead of from it. But where can you keep your feet under you in any powerful spiral? In the center.