If you’re in an intimate relationship, fights and conflict are bound to happen. After all, you’re different people with different experiences, expectations, drives, perceptions, and desires. Just because you are going to have a fight with your partner doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. The following guidelines are for navigating conflict in a healthy way.
- Embrace conflict: Conflict is normal and healthy. Differences between you mean that there is room for each of you to learn, grow, and further develop your relationship. Avoidance of conflict tends to breed fear, resentment, worry, and disengagement.
- Define the issue at hand: Before you begin you may want to know “what exactly is bothering me? What do I want to express?” Set your goals, what do you want to be the outcome of the discussion? It’s not about who will win or lose, or who is right or who is wrong, but creating a workable solution that resolves the problem at hand, or moves the relationship in the direction you would like it to go. Remember your partner is your friend and you want to be their friend.
- Set a time for discussion in a reasonable time line.
- Use I/you statements that state the facts and your reactions. Avoid judgmental statements, blaming, shoulds, or all-or-nothing blanket statements. For example, “You make me angry when you don’t clean up. You should just clean up after yourself. You’re so irresponsible.” In this sentence, the other person is blamed for emotions, a “should” indicates whatever really happened is wrong, and the statement of irresponsibility is a judgment. Instead a statement like, “I see dirty dishes there on the coffee table. When I see a mess in the house it really makes me feel frustrated. I would appreciate it if you would clear the dishes after you finish using them.” communicates the specific problem, reactions, and desires.
- Actively listen to your partner. Active listening means giving your partner 100% of your attention, no multitasking, turning away, going into a shell, or interrupting. Validate feelings, reflect what you’ve heard to make sure you understand what’s being communicated. Try to adopt an attitude of open curiosity, even if your reaction is initially a defensive one. Something is going on in each of your worlds and it’s important for your relationship to understand. Try to take your partner’s viewpoint, separate from your own.
- Invite the other person to share their point of view after you’ve finished speaking. Use active listening skills, and demonstrate genuine interest and curiosity. Validate feelings. Try to take your partner’s viewpoint separate from your own.
- Speak with calm, assertive awareness. When we yell, or shout, and make intimidating gestures, we are less likely to be heard, and more likely to create a defensive reaction in our partners. Your partner will be more likely to focus on the delivery of the message rather than the content when you yell. When we speak too softly, with slumped posture, or a withdrawn demeanor we are more likely to be dismissed. When you speak calmly, with relaxed body language, and assert your experience, you are more likely to be positively received and heard.
- Stop and use time-outs when necessary. If you feel that the discussion is getting too heated, waiting until you feel calmer is just fine. 20 minute breaks can be very helpful. Having conversations while going for a walk, or in a serene place may also be helpful, rather than having a debate at home.
- Propose specific solutions, invite your partner to propose solutions as well. Be willing to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal, and be willing to compromise, though do not be willing to break your hard boundaries.
- Avoid digging up the past, keeping score, or stockpiling events. If an issue has been buried and resolved, leave it in the past and don’t dig up the grave to only have to bury it again. Focus on the issue at hand and how you both can resolve the issue going forward. If it is an ongoing issue, stick to the specifics, and how you can create resolution from there. Keeping score creates a power differential in the relationship and creates a tit-for-tat atmosphere that tends not to be workable. When we stockpile events they tend to breed resentment. It is also is difficult to create resolutions when we’re not focused on one issue at a time.
- Avoid personal attacks/low blows. When we’re intimate with our partner, we know exactly what to say if we really want to hurt them, bringing up old insecurities or wounds. This doesn’t serve to resolve conflict, only to create more hurt than is already being experienced.
- Create your own Ground Rules for Fair Fighting.
- After making a resolution, give yourself a space to process the emotions you’ve experienced. Let go of what you can, repair what needs to be repaired, and engage as friends/lovers to the best of your ability. This can be done by making silly faces, a hug, kiss, fun date night. Whatever it is that helps you both get back to baseline.
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