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By Adam Maurer, LPC, LMFT
Conflict is an inevitable part of being in any relationship and research shows that 65% of arguments are unresolvable. People tend to pick partners who complement their own ways of being, which can lead to difficult challenges as well as great rewards. You can either learn how to use conflict to grow closer as a team or you can allow it to create rifts in your relationship. Many couples find that they get stuck in patterns of communication when conflict arises. Have the same argument enough times and eventually fears of those negative communication loops lead you to hate conflict. Through conflict can be uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to be feared. In fact, it can lead to greater connection with your loved ones if you know how to fight right. So, let’s look at some strategies to productively engage in conflict.
You’re On The Same Side
No matter the conflict, people who have care for each other want the same things. Ultimately, we want our loved ones to feel safe, loved, respected, and happy. When in a conflict with your partner, slow down and recognize that you are both on the same side regardless of the issue. Talks about money are ripe for divisive conflict, one person is labeled cheap while the other is belittled for being an out of control shopper. Contempt and defensiveness bubble to the surface and both parties and left feeling rotten. If you pause that conflict for a moment to adjust so that it is both you and your partner versus the finances, you are better able to work together to find a resolution. Instead of name calling and defensiveness, you can have a supportive dialogue where concerns are heard and respected; allowing the bests solutions to surface. Remember that underneath every complaint is a deep longing. Empathy and understanding replace hurt feelings, and through you might not ever completely agree with your partner’s viewpoint you have a deeper appreciation for their perspective and you develop collaborative strategies to manage the problem at hand.
Externalize The Problem
Notice in the above paragraph that I wrote “it is both you and your partner versus finances,” that was not just flowery language for engaging reading, it was an example of the next tip. It is easier to view your partner as being on your side if you externalize the problem. Finances are the problem, not your partner. Externalizing the problem allows you to express yourselves with less likelihood of falling into defensiveness and contempt. “You spend too much,” becomes “the finances really have me worried this month.” As you can see, one way invites a fight where the other way invites a supportive discussion. A common enemy makes for lasting relationships, so don’t put the problem in your partner, externalize it. Give the problem a name, personify it. The conversations will become less scary and old negative patterns of communication will become opportunities for connection.
Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? If you answered yes to any of those then take care of any of those needs before engaging in or continuing a difficult conversation. It is hard to be empathetic when you’re hungry. If you find yourselves in the midst of a conflict and basic needs surface you will need to ask for a break to attend to whatever needs addressing. Make sure to set up a time to reengage in the conversation so that your partner is not left feeling unheard or disrespected. Say something along the lines of: “What you are saying is really important to me and I find that I am having a hard time listening because I am so tired. May we pick up this conversation after I get a thirty minute nap so that I can be more attentive to your perspective?”
Flexible Vs Inflexible Areas
One of the greatest contributors to frustration during conflict is miscommunication. The problem is that our culture tends to look at issues on a binary, you’re either for something or completely against it. The reality is much more nuanced than that. We have flexible areas in a conflict as well as inflexible areas; thank you to the Gottmans for discovering this gem. If you can express your inflexible areas, and understand your partner’s, then you can more easily collaborate on a course of action. Back to the example of the finances, it is not all spending must cease versus a limitless credit card. Perhaps the inflexible areas are eating out too much and needing to maintain a polished look for a career. If you can talk about those areas, then you have all the flexible areas to negotiate.
These are just a couple of tips to using conflict as a way to get closer to your partner. With practice and patience it can get easier. If you need help managing conflict in your relationship come talk with one of our relationship experts. We can provide a safe space to practice conflict, and help you unlock ways to deeper connection. If you would like to inquire about counseling with Just Mind, contact us to make a counseling appointment to see how we can help. Alternatively, you can read more about couples counseling on our dedicated page.