Conflict is an essential and inevitable part of every intimate relationship. Read that again and let it sink in. Years ago, I dated a guy who took great pride in the fact that his parents never argued. After spending a great deal of time with his family, I concluded they were not unlike most families: they too had their dysfunctions. What’s more, his parents barely got along but put up a good face in public.
Every couple deals with conflict differently. Some shove problems under the carpet; others complain to their friends but don’t speak to their partner; still others are passive aggressive. The list goes on. The reason many of us are not good with conflict is because we have unresolved issues that linger deep within us, issues that existed before we entered our intimate relationship. These issues inevitably will rise to the surface. Additionally, most of us are not equipped to deal with conflict in a healthy way. As I always say, no one taught us how to date successfully. No one taught us how to fight fairly and respectfully. Instead, we do what we learned growing up, often, much to our detriment.
Understand that conflict in your relationship is not a sign of failure or a real problem with the relationship. Two distinct people come together and, when they show their authentic selves and express their feelings and vulnerabilities, they will butt heads from time to time. After all, how can anyone see the world exactly the same way as you?
For a healthy relationship, it is important to deal with issues effectively when they arise. Otherwise small issues will build up over time and eventually that which is suppressed deep within you will implode in one way or another.
Some healthy ways to unpack issues start by setting some ground rules for dealing with conflict effectively and respectively. Practice this way of communicating and arguing. That is the only way you will become really good at it over time – practice with the right intent.
First, seek mutual consent. Ask your partner for permission to discuss something that is bothering you. If your partner works in a high stress job and comes home absolutely beat, after work may not be the right time to discuss something that is close to your heart. Instead, say gently, “I’d like to carve out time to discuss x with you. When would be a good time for you this week?” This way, your partner doesn’t feel that you’re pulling a fast one.
Second, understand when it is a good time and not a good time to have a real conversation. I don’t know about you but when I haven’t slept well or I haven’t eaten real food in several hours, I become really cranky. If you have been enjoying a night out with friends over several cocktails, when you return home may not be the best time to have a heart to heart. Know thy self. Self-awareness is key.
Third, stick to ONE issue at a time. When you’re in the middle of a heated discussion, your flight or fight response is activated and your only mission becomes to “win” the argument. Get over the fact that you want your partner to see things YOUR WAY. Be respectful and hold off on the other topics you may want to discuss. Stick to ONE issue. Arguments need not be a win-lose situation; both parties can come out feeling more understood.
Fourth, set your intent. Your intent is not to get him to see things your way so he can come to his senses, apologize and agree with you. Go into the conversation with respect. Doesn’t your partner deserve your very best when you’re trying to resolve an issue? Be respectful. Be gentle. Be kind. Yes, you can display those positive qualities even when you disagree.
Fifth, listen to understand, not to reply. Seriously, when you’re in a conversation, are you thinking about what you’re going to say when the person is done talking or are you fully present and trying to understand the person’s perspective?
As a last resort, BEFORE you go into a discussion, set a key word that you can use to disrupt the flow if the conversation starts to become heated. For example, a fun word, like “monkey,” might be a good prod that means, “Hey, I need a time out to calm down.”
Studies have shown that if you sit side by side, rather than across from each other, the conversation can go better. A gentle touch on his leg to express warmth is a surprising but welcome way to break the rhythm in the midst of what could be a hard conversation. Keep these tactics in mind.
If the conversation becomes really heated and you can no longer think straight, say, “Hey, I’m getting really flustered and need a time out. Let’s separate for 15 minutes and come back to the kitchen at 6:20pm. The key here is to come back together and not to leave the house for an indefinite amount of time. This is called “stonewalling” and is very unproductive and hurtful in the long term.
Finally, use “I” statements. Don’t attack your partner but focus on his behavior. He is not stupid even if he did something that did not make sense to you. Instead use sentences such as, “I felt abandoned when we went to the party last night and as soon as we walked in, you left me to go hang with your friends. I didn’t know any one and I felt hurt by that. Next time, it would be great if you could check in with me from time to time and introduce me to some of your friends.” Get the drift?
Keep in mind that conflict is a normal and healthy part of growth within your relationship. Conflicts allow you to resolve issues that you may have brought into the relationship. They not only allow you to heal and grow, as you work through issues together, but they also can strengthen your bond and up your connection. Growth rarely happens when things are going well. Consider these discussions as an opportunity to grow and learn more about your partner. There is a lot of history there.
Remember that you don’t always have the effective tools, objectivity or expertise to resolve issues on your own. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Yes, a therapist or a coach will cost you energy and time. What price have you set for happiness? To what length will you go to ensure happiness in your relationship? You don’t know how to do everything well and that’s okay. Accept it. Let go of your pride and enlist help before a problem festers for too long. Seeking professional help is no different than going to see a doctor when you have an illness. The longer you wait, the more complex the treatment will be.
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