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Now Reading: 10 Rules For Resolving Conflict In A Relationship
4 months ago
If you get your relationship inspiration from Instagram, you could be forgiven for thinking that the best relationships are conflict-free. We get sold a depiction of #relationshipgoals where couples are too busy taking photos in the sunset together to be fighting with each other.
The consequence is that we can automatically see conflict in our own relationship as a negative thing. If we’re arguing, if things get hard, that’s a sign that the relationship isn’t working, and we should probably pull the plug.
The reality is that conflict is an ordinary part of relationships. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes, we all do things we later regret. When we do, it’s important to have a conversation and repair the relationship.
When done well, conflict can actually improve your relationship. When you resolve conflict constructively, it can allow you to address a problem in the relationship and gain a better understanding of your partner in the process.
As Rory Vaden observed, “Great relationships develop not from the absence of conflict, but from determining an agreeable pattern for how to resolve conflict.”
The challenge is that humans aren’t naturally great at conflict resolution. That whole flight-or-fight mechanism is great if you’re being chased by a tiger, but less helpful in a disagreement with your partner about money.
When you’re resolving conflict, I’ve found these 10 rules to go a long way to ensuring that there’s a positive outcome.
If you’ve ever watched reality TV, I’m sure you’re familiar with the crazy-chick-who-takes-everything-personally. There’s one in every show and she’s hard to miss. Every time she’s talking to the camera, she’s recounting how something done by someone else was a calculated move to upset her.
In the past two years of being in a relationship, I’ve had a revelation. I have a crazy-chick-who-takes-everything-personally that lives in my head.
Every time Renée does something that annoys me or says something hurtful, there’s a little voice ranting in my head “I cannot believe that she would do that. She’s supposed to love me and she’s trying to upset me on purpose. I need to vote her off the island ASAP.”
In reality, the vast majority of the conflict in our relationship is completely unintentional. It’s just the result of misunderstanding.
Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that people tend to approach things autobiographically – meaning that our approach to conflict is shaped by our own experience, our own motives, our own fears and frustrations.
This issue with this is when someone’s response or feelings fall outside of our understanding, we often handle it poorly. We assume that are partner is doing that thing to upset us, when in reality, they’ve got no idea it bothers us at all.
So next time you’re attempting to resolve a conflict, try leading with, “Hey, I felt hurt/confused/frustrated/angry when you did/said/didn’t do [this thing]. Can you give me a bit more understanding of why you did/said/didn’t do that?”
Conflicts are a lot like icebergs. Not in the sense that they can appear out of nowhere and if you hit them it can result in mass casualties (though it can feel like that sometimes). In the sense that what we experience on the surface often part of something much bigger.
One time while we were dating, Renée dropped the “we need to talk” bomb one evening after I failed to send her a message saying goodnight. In my mind, this felt like an overaction for a pretty small infraction.
But it turned out that the missed goodnight message was part of a much bigger problem below the surface – Renée felt (quite rightly) that a lack of intentionality had begun to develop in our relationship.
There’s been more than one occasion where Renée has seemed overly upset about something small, like me being a few minutes late, but really, she’s upset about a deeper issue.
There have been more than ten occasions when I’ve gotten upset about something, but really, I’m upset about something else, and I haven’t even realised until later. I’ve been irrationally angry that Renée has eaten the last Tim-Tam, but in reality, I’m mostly just stressed out by work, and I haven’t processed that stress in a healthy way.
This is why seeking first to understand is important. It’s also why, if you’re hurt or upset by something, it’s can good not to rush into dealing with it immediately. Pause. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Reflect on whether there’s anything else you’re dealing with that might be impacting the way that you feel.
Addressing the surface level stuff without dealing with the deeper issue is like putting band-aids on a splinter. You’ve got to go deeper and deal with the splinter.
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This one rule is often the difference in my relationship between positive conflict resolution and a fight that we both regret. When emotions are running high, I’m not great at taking time to calm down. I think there’s this prideful part of me that insists on sticking it out until the end.
But I’m learning at the point in a conversation where instead of getting less frustrated, I’m getting more frustrated, I need to take a break and cool off.
At the point in the conversation when it doesn’t feel like we’re making progress, we’re just going around in circles, I need to take a break and cool off.
At the point in the conversation where I’m no longer trying to genuinely understand Renée’s perspective, I’m just angry/frustrated/upset/scared/all of the above, I need to take a break and cool off.
When things get heated, the best thing you can do is take a break. Usually, Renée or I will say something like “Hey, I want to resolve this, but I don’t think I’m in the right mindset right now. Can we take a break and come back to this a bit later?”
Then we take a break. Not just 5 deep breaths. A break. We take at least 20-30 minutes. We go for a walk (separately). We write down what you’re upset about. We watch this video of an owl getting its head scratched. We do something to calm down, so that we can come back to the conversation in a better frame of mind.
If you’re like me, you might get defensive when your partner brings up something that you’re doing wrong. It can be tempting to try to shift the focus and immediately reply with something they do wrong, especially if it’s worse.
“Oh, I didn’t show much appreciation for you this week? Well, at least I don’t turn on the passive-aggressive switch when I’m upset like you do.”
Dragging multiple issues into one conversation like this is a sure-fire way to avoid any kind of constructive dialogue. It usually just leads to both parties getting overwhelmed. If you want to resolve conflict effectively, it’s important to stick to one issue at a time.
If you’re trying to resolve conflict and your partner brings up something else, stand your ground. Gently but firmly say something like ““If you think that’s an issue, then it’s definitely something that I want to address. But we can’t move on to that issue until we resolve this one first.”
When we’re frustrated about a pattern of behaviour or a recurring source of conflict, we can be tempted to break out two words you need to ban from your relationship, “never” and “always.”
As in, “you never make the effort to be romantic anymore” or “you always have to have the last word in any of our disagreements.”
There’s a couple of problems with these two bad-boys. The first is that they’re dishonest. It’s going to be extremely rare that someone does (or fails to do) something 100% of the time.
By exaggerating and saying that a person “always” does something, it’s going to be hard for them to acknowledge their actual fault, because they’re probably going to get defensive about denying that it’s something they always do.
The other problem is that it’s hard to address a generalisation. If Renée told me that “I never show appreciation for her,” not only would I be defensive, I’d also have no idea how to improve my behaviour.
But if she said, “Yesterday, after I planned a date night and cooked dinner for you, I felt unappreciated when you didn’t say thank you.” Aha. Now I better understand where Renée is coming from, and I’ve got a specific behaviour that I can improve on
Never generalise in a conflict resolution. Always speak about specific examples and how they affected you (see what I did there).
Maybe your upset because your partner ate a whole tub of ice-cream by him/herself. The way NOT to address this would be to say, “You’re such a selfish person.”
Sure, in that moment, maybe they were being selfish. But I’m sure selfishness doesn’t go to the core of who they are as a person.
As psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman points out, a much more constructive strategy is to use “I statements” and pair them with “behaviour descriptions.” “I statements” focus on how you feel, while “behaviour descriptions” focus on a specific behaviour your partner has engaged in, rather than attacking their character.
So, in this (totally hypothetical, definitely hasn’t happened in my relationship) situation, you would say “I felt upset and unconsidered (I statement) when you ate the whole tub of ice-cream (behaviour description).”
Personal insults are 100% not allowed. “Idiot,” “a**hole,” “b*tch” and whatever other choice names you can think of are always off the table. The minute name-calling starts, shut the conversation down. Just walk away if you have to. Don’t come back until you’re both calm.
If this is a regular feature of conflict in your relationship – take it seriously. This is the type of thing that is a deal-breaker if it doesn’t improve. Insults make a conflict worse, they prevent reconciliation, and the words said can cause insecurity that goes way beyond the conflict itself.
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In the wise wise words of Dr. Phil, if you’re focused on “winning” the argument, the relationship loses. Seriously. As someone who’s on the CBI (Conflict Bureau of Investigation, obviously) Most Wanted List for doing this regularly, I can tell you it’s the most counterproductive way you can deal with conflict.
In turns every conflict resolution into a lose-lose. Even if you win the argument, so what? All you’ve probably won is a partner who is probably still upset, doesn’t feel heard, and a conflict that still hasn’t been resolved constructively.
The essential thing to remember about your relationship, even when there’s conflict, is that you are a team. Say it to yourself like Woody in Toy Story when he tells Buzz that he’s a toy: You. Are. A. Team.
When there’s conflict, that goal should never be to prove that you’re right and your partner is wrong. The point should be to reach mutual understanding and to find a resolution that you’re both onboard with. That’s the only “win” that matters.
In many moments of conflict, there will be things that you both need to apologise for. Make it your goal to apologise first. It will show your partner that you’re the bigger person and then you can leer down at them from the moral high ground – kidding.
But seriously, when you’re able to come to the conflict resolution having reflected on where you went wrong, and you apologise right off the bat, it’s a great starting point.
Going back to Rule #8, apologising first is a clear sign that you care less about being right than you do about reconciliation. It will make your partner feel safe, acknowledged, and it creates a space where it’s easier for them to be vulnerable about their own shortcomings as well.
After you’ve made your apology, you’ve got to live it. If I apologise to Renee for something but the next day, I’m back at it again, what is my apology worth? Not a whole lot! If you’re not willing to try to do better, there’s no way your apology is sincere.
Relationships are kind-of like swimming. If you’re not putting in effort, if you’re not making progress, then you’re sinking. The minute one of you stops trying to become the best boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse that you can be, that’s when the real trouble starts.
This is where conflict resolution can be so incredibly valuable – it highlights those areas where growth is needed. Conflict is never fun, but over time, I’ve found myself grateful for its presence in my relationship. It helps me to understand Renée in a deeper way, and it teaches me how I can be a better spouse.
We’re far from perfect, but by following these 10 rules, we’re able to navigate conflict in a way that doesn’t shake the foundation of our love for each other. Every time we resolve a conflict, we build a better relationship on that foundation.