Being in a close, loving relationship is many things. It’s comforting, satisfying, challenging, enlightening, and fun. The one thing that a close relationship is not, however, is simple.
In the beginning of a new relationship, the time I think of as the Golden Days, your partner can do no wrong. Snoring is cute. Picking up the socks that end up all over the house is an act of love. The thought of a serious fight seems impossible — until it happens.
The person you love the most, to whom you are closest, becomes irritating, stupid, or irrational. Suddenly the Golden Days are replaced with reality. You and your partner are shedding your pretenses. Neither you nor your loved one feels the need to impress the other. You are committed to each other. You’re comfortable together.
But the snoring starts to drive you crazy, and you resent the socks you have to pick up. Conflict arrives.
All couples experience conflict, but there are ways to minimize its pain and maximize its growth. Instead of drawing you and your partner apart, conflict can bring your relationship to a new level of intimacy. This happens not by chance, but through learning new ways of relating to your partner and new relationship skills.
1. Decide on a topic and a time.
If there is an issue you want to resolve with your partner, decide together on a time and day to discuss it. Don’t plan it for when you’re tired, or likely to be stressed. If you can, make it for when you’ll have the privacy and time you need. For some, this means talking after the kids are in bed, or when you can hire a babysitter. It may mean planning time on the weekend, when your stress level is lower. Make it an appointment that you have thought about and agreed upon with your partner, and stick to it.
2. Keep on topic.
I can’t stress this one enough. If you’ve set aside time to talk about needed home repairs, don’t start discussing how your partner didn’t take down the Christmas lights until August. It can be very easy to try to get all of your complaints in at once, but resist that temptation. This time is for the agreed-upon topic only. Otherwise you will both become overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated.
3. Learn how to actively listen.
Active listening is more than simply hearing. It is listening with all your attention on what your partner is saying. It means not thinking of what you want to say next, but focusing your entire self on your partner.
As you actively listen, you want to make sure what you’re hearing is what your partner is saying. Saying something like “so, it sounds like you’re really angry that I didn’t go with you to your work party” gives your partner space to clarify — “no, it wasn’t that. It was that you didn’t even ask me how it went when I came home.” Then you try again with a statement such as “you wanted me to show interest in it.”
Ask and clarify until your partner feels like you get it. It might feel strange at first, but once you get a handle on active listening, you will find it is an incredible tool to have for all sorts of conflict in your life, not just in your relationship.
A relationship is a partnership that entails give and take. If there is something that you and your partner cannot agree on, then you need to figure out some sort of compromise.You don’t need to be completely enthusiastic about it, but you do have to feel comfortable with it.
5. Be kind.
Some people call this “fighting fair,” but you don’t need to be fighting to use this skill. Don’t call your partner names. This is never helpful, and it only increases tension. Don’t use the word “always” (because it’s often untrue). Try to use “I” statements: “I feel….I think…I need.” Don’t try and read your partner’s mind. “You feel…you think….you need” are phrases to stay away from. Only you partner knows these things — you can only assume or guess.
Learning and using these five skills will improve how you and your partner interact, and your relationship will grow. Couples who have good communication skills are able to work through problems in a healthy way. Conflict will never be fun, but it is expected and normal. Being able to work through problems can lead to growth and deeper levels of intimacy, and in the end makes a relationship stronger.