‘Conflict Mapping’ Is Esther Perel’s Technique for Getting to the Bottom of Any Relationship Fight

Photo: W+G Creative/Zenith Richards
In a fight with your partner, it's easy to get caught up in what they're doing—how they've wronged you and what jab they're likely to throw your way next, so you can beat them to it. Maybe you can even recite their playbook of go-to moves and rattle off the ways you tend to refute them. But no matter how fairly you may be fighting, trying to predict your partner's approach or assume their motivations won't get you any closer to resolution; instead, it's more helpful to analyze your own moves and determine how you may be contributing to the dynamic via a process called conflict mapping, according to psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel.

Experts In This Article
  • Esther Perel, psychotherapist, relationship expert, and New York Times bestselling author

A technique covered in Perel's new hour-long course Turning Conflict Into Connection, conflict mapping helps you and a partner get to the root cause of a relationship fight and determine the pattern that may be causing you to have the same kind of fight over and over again. By encouraging you to think about both your role and your partner's role in the fight, conflict mapping takes into account the fact that fights are almost never solo shows with a single instigator or person at fault. “Conflict is a dynamic, interactive dance,” says Perel. “There is an interconnection between the moves where my move evokes your move, and yours provokes mine, so we are contributing to what the other person is doing.”

"There is an interconnection between the moves where my move evokes your move, and yours provokes mine, so we are contributing to what the other person is doing." —Esther Perel, relationship expert

At the core of every relationship fight, according to Perel, is one of three reasons why couples argue: power, trust, or value. If someone is fighting for power, they may feel like they don't have a fair role in the decision-making for a certain situation or that their perspective isn't prioritized; if they're fighting for trust, they're looking to feel reassured that they can really rely on their partner when the going gets tough; and if they're fighting for value, they're wanting to feel respected and recognized by their partner for their contributions to the partnership.

In the heat of a relationship argument, however, it can be tough to figure out what you're both really fighting for—which is why Perel recommends conflict mapping at a time when you're not actively fighting and you're able to look back on a conflict with clear hindsight.

How to map a relationship conflict

Bring to mind a recent relationship fight for which you and your partner didn't quite find resolution, or a fight that seems to crop up repeatedly—perhaps the argument over who's leaving dirty dishes in the sink or who's always late. Then, ask yourself the following questions (and have your partner do the same) to break it into pieces and understand how and why it unfolded in the way it did:

  • What was each person doing before the fight started? For example, were you working on a stressful work task, or were you having a quiet moment that was interrupted by the fight? Was someone rushing home from a doctor's appointment or gathering ingredients to cook dinner?
  • How did the fight actually start? What was said or done to initiate tension?
  • Which fighting strategies did you employ? A few common tactics include antagonizing, mocking, minimizing, and belittling. Were any of these in play (or something else you can identify)? Perel also recommends looking out for fighting strategies that only serve to entrench conflict—aka the things you should never do in a fight: retaliation, showing contempt or lack or respect, bringing in others as backup (aka triangulating), bringing up past grievances, maximizing (unloading everything onto a partner), and minimizing (saying it's not a big deal when it is).
  • How did your partner respond to the strategies you used? Did they employ similar fighting tactics or different ones?
  • Which of the "fighting dances" did you use? Perel breaks fight dynamics into three "fighting dances:"
    • Fight/Flight: One partner attacks, and the other doesn't respond or leaves the room.
    • Fight/Fight: Two people attack each other.
    • Flight/Flight: Two people leave the situation and give each other the silent treatment.
  • How did you set each other off throughout the fight? Was there a turning point in the fight where it became more vicious, aggressive, or hurtful? What precipitated that?
  • What was the underlying reason for the fight? At this point in conflict mapping, you can look back over the moves you've noted above with enough clarity to assess whether power, trust, or value was the reason causing you or your partner to engage in this fight. For example, if someone antagonized or yelled at someone else, might it be because they don't typically feel heard or prioritized? If someone brought up all the other times they took care of, say, the dishes in the sink, could it be because they're feeling chronically undervalued? As you assign a meaning to each move, a pattern will emerge.

How to use your conflict map to move toward resolution

Conflict mapping shifts the dynamic from active to curious, says Perel—which means rather than just trying to get back at your partner, you're considering why they've acted in the way they did and why you've acted in the way you did, too. "There's a distinction between what are we fighting about versus what are we fighting for," explains Perel.

In surfacing what you're fighting for, conflict mapping offers information you can use to reconcile with your partner. For example, consider a fight about dirty dishes being left in the sink. When one person asks their partner why they haven't handled the dishes, they're likely not so concerned with the dishes themselves as with the feeling that they can't trust their partner to pick up slack around the house. If the other partner lashes out, it's likely not because they aren't willing to do the dishes, but instead, because they feel as if their partner doesn't recognize their contributions to the relationship or trust them to get the chores done on their own terms.

In this case, understanding the motivations of one partner to feel respected and cared for and the other to feel trusted then opens the door for resolution. "You're moving away from the criticism and toward the underlying wishes, and that's a completely different conversation," says Perel. From there, you could reflect with your partner on other ways that each of you can have your respective needs met within the relationship—so that a pile of dirty dishes doesn't ever have to feel like such a point of tension again.

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