Years ago, when I was in my twenties and dating a nice young man, we had an argument. I couldn’t tell you why we were arguing, but I do remember it was over something rather benign. I also remember he got mad, left the room and refused to talk to me. I was shocked. “Really?” I said. “This is how you handle conflict?” There were other things that led to the rather quick end to that relationship, but this was a pivotal point. How he handled the conflict was more important to me than what the conflict was even about.
Conflict is a given. How we handle it is the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship. Conflict resolution is a learned skill. Your life and your relationships will improve with this skill; your life and your relationships will be harmed without it. Here are a few tips to help get you on track with doing conflict resolution in a healthy, grown-up way.
- Stay emotionally regulated. You can engage in the conversation without having to shut down or lash out.
- The number one reason conflict goes sideways is one or both partners are too emotionally flooded to engage in a productive conversation. If this is an area you struggle, prioritize learning mindfulness strategies to help you stay grounded and present.
- Use clear, concise statements. Use short, clear statements to share your thoughts and feelings and to communicate what you see as needed for resolution.
- The number two reason conflict goes sideways is partners use lots and lots of words to express their thoughts and feelings. When we use a lot of words, partners either feel attacked and fight back/shut down or they get lost in all the words and tune out. If this is an area you struggle, practice in non-heated moments, stating your thoughts and feelings in clear statements. You could even write them down and edit them until they are clear and concise. An example of a clear statement is, “When you come home late without calling me, I feel angry and unimportant. Can we talk about ways to resolve this together?”
- Use non-blaming statements. Stay focused on your experience, how it made you feel and what you need differently.
- The number three reason conflict goes sideways is when partners use blaming statements which results in a defensive response 100 percent of the time. Here is the difference between a blaming and a non-blaming statement. Blaming: “You only care about your work.” Non-blaming: “When you work long hours and then get back on the computer late at night, I feel sad and frustrated. Can we talk about ways for us to prioritize time together so I don’t lose connection to you?” If this is an area you struggle, practice in non-heated moments stating your feelings and thoughts in non-blaming ways. Use a past example of feeling hurt or angry with your partner and write it down. Edit it until you can clearly see it is not a blaming statement.
- Shut up and listen. Remember to stop talking and be present in listening to your partner’s point of view.
- The number four reason conflict goes sideways is that one or both partners have misunderstood the thoughts, feelings, or intentions of the other. These misunderstandings are normal when emotions are heightened. They cannot, however, be sorted out without the ability to stop and listen to make sure you are accurate in what you are hearing your partner say. Often, resolution is difficult because partners misunderstand the needs of the other. If this is your struggle, set a timer to allow each of you to take turns talking and listening. Then, reflect back what you heard and make sure it is correct. Example: “I heard you say that you feel unimportant when I don’t call you when I know I’m going to be late. Is that right?”
- Choose timing wisely. Do not engage in heated topics at bad times (late at night, early morning if still groggy, on the way out the door, in the middle of a stressful workday, in front of the children or others, on an empty stomach, when drinking alcohol).
- The number five reason conflict goes sideways is poor conditions. Healthy conflict resolution requires two sober, wise-minded, rested, and fed individuals who have the time and bandwidth to be their best selves. If this is an area you struggle, pick a time of the week that is good for both partners, away from your children or other family members, and try and sort through a topic that has caused repeated issues. See the difference when conditions are right.
- Know when to seek counsel. Recognize when you both need more information to come to resolution.
- The number six reason conflict goes sideways is when partners present themselves as the expert opinion without being open to influence. Arguing over parenting? Read a parenting book together, listen to a parenting podcast, read a blog, call your most respected parent friend for advice, go see a parenting therapist together, hire a parenting coach, take a parenting class. Arguing over chores? Ask some mutual friends how they divvy up the chores in their home. Read books like Fair Play, by Eve Rodsky, that are chock-full of ideas for partners running a household together. Arguing over money? Go sit together with your financial advisor or a trusted mentor. Sit with a couples therapist who can help you voice your financial goals and values in a productive way. Arguing over sex? Read books like Come As You Are, by Emily Nagowski, or listen to a podcast like “Foreplay Radio” by George Fallon and Laurie Watson. Seek the help of a couples therapist to help you navigate a tricky topic like differing sexual desires. The options of resources are endless. And likely, the particular conflict you are having is a conflict thousands of other couples have had, which means there are lots of experts who can weigh in with good, sound strategies. If this is an area you struggle, decide together that you are a couple open to resources because you don’t have it all figured out. Decide together which types of resources feel safe and trusted, and use them.
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