Part 1: Fight Better
The words above may sound mutually exclusive. The truth is however, that as much as we may like to avoid it, conflict is important in relationships. While it may seem desirable to work towards removing all conflict, more can be gained from looking at how you respond to it as a couple. When there is a difference in opinion with our partner, we tend to immediately go into defence mode. Our brain often perceives this difference as a threat to us not being heard or understood. Or not getting our needs met. In addition, we all have our own unique set of life experiences which impacts on how we react when we feel under threat. Ultimately, becoming more skilful and intentional in resolving conflict together will bring increased love and intimacy to your relationship. Used effectively, conflict can actually be harnessed to bring you closer as a couple.
The How to:
Learn to pause before acting on it when you are feeling frustrated or annoyed with your partner. Take a few moments to centre yourself. Even just closing your eyes and breathing for a few minutes can help. In these moments try to tune in to what it feels like in your body and what you think this feeling is connected to. Acknowledge what is showing up, and reassure yourself that you will take action to represent this feeling well.
Now listen to what your partner has to say. You may be tempted to jump in here and defend your position, argue or just be heard, but it is important to simply listen. Listen with the intention of understanding your partner’s point of view. More importantly, listen to what they are saying is connected to, and why they feel that way. Ask questions if you need to, in a non-threatening way, to clarify what they are saying. It is important that your partner feels you are genuinely interested in understanding them, even if you don’t agree with what they are saying.
After you fully understand your partner’s position, take some time to explain yours. It is important to go slowly here. As soon as you notice your voice escalating or words coming more quickly, try to take a breath to centre yourself. Your mission right now isn’t to defend your position but simply to explain to your partner what is going on for you and what that is attached to. For example – why do you feel so strongly about this? And, what does it mean to you?
Once you fully understand each other, you can then work on a resolution. Rather than batting the problem back and forwards with each person defending their position and escalating the conflict, I find it more effective to solve problems side by side. You are invested in this together. Your relationship is more important than any disagreement. With that in mind, approach conflict from a position as a couple rather than two individuals. Standing together as a unit – metaphorically throw the problem down in front of you. Then work through a solution that is going to represent the relationship as well as the individuals. Take care to ensure each person’s needs are being met as well as possible. Also ensure that if either person feels compromised or uncomfortable, this is heard and understood, and a solution found which adequately addresses this.
If you are feeling stuck in finding a mutually beneficial resolution, start thinking a bit more out of the box. I have found that by letting go of some of my rigidly help ideas and opening up to a whole range of possibilities, often a better outcome is achieved than I would have thought possible. My husband is king of out of the box ideas and previously this has totally spun my inner control-freak out. By practicing flexibility and dropping my defensiveness of my “perfect outcome”, we have become much more skilful at finding mutually optimal solutions.
According to relationship expert and couples therapist Stan Tatkin, conflict in relationships is not a problem, so long as an effective repair takes place as soon as possible. Tatkin’s message on the topic is something along the lines of “you make a mess, you clean it up”. So if tempers flare and conflict boils over, this isn’t a major problem, so long as both members of the couple fix things. A good repair involves soothing each other in a way that will make them feel calmer and loved, each owning their part in the conflict and then making an active effort to find a workable resolution. Something that trips a lot of couples up here is waiting for the other person to initiate the repair. Please, for me, don’t do this. It doesn’t matter if you went first last time – just for goodness sake, get the process of rolling. If you feel like it is always left up to you to star the repair then you could try the strategy described below.
I am a huge fan of dealing with conflict when the going is good. I admit this feels a little counter-intuitive – who wants to rock the boat when things are great right?! But when you are feeling close as a couple, can be a good time to just conversationally and in a non-threatening way let your partner know if you have something on your mind. It is important this does not involve making demands, accusations or ultimatums. I simply mean opening a conversation in a friendly way about how you are feeling about a particular issue. Let you partner know this is important to you so you just wanted them to know how you felt. Then if necessary, apply the problem solving strategies listed above. Doing this regularly can prevent these issues from coming out pear-shaped when we wait until we are at boiling point to bring them up.
Protecting the sense of safety and security within the couple when resolving conflict is a key responsibility of both individuals. If you do this well, it will result in a closer, more secure relationship which is a haven from the outside world.
Next up – I will be asking you “How well do you really know your partner?”