Every couple has conflict. The most common clashes surround money, sex and kids, according to Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in couples therapy.
For instance, one spouse is a saver, while the other is a spender. One partner wants to have more sex, while the other doesn’t. One partner thinks their child needs to have an early curfew and other restrictions, while the other is more lax.
The key to a healthy relationship isn’t an absence of conflict or differences. It’s handling conflict successfully. Here’s how healthy couples do it.
Healthy couples address the conflict.
Some partners shut down and give each other the silent treatment or avoid the problem in other ways, said Bush, also author of the book 75 Habits for a Happy Marriage: Advice to Recharge and Reconnect Every Day. However, healthy couples are “willing to talk about what’s going on.”
Healthy couples see conflict as an opportunity.
“They see [conflict] as a means for growing together… an opportunity to understand each other better and to clarify their needs and values,” Bush said.
“The conflict doesn’t become a disconnect or a power struggle but an opportunity for both of them to create something new,” according to Harville Hendrix, Ph.D, co-creator of Imago Relationship Therapy with his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. It becomes an opportunity to have a conversation, he said.
Healthy couples value each other’s perspective.
Healthy couples believe that each partner has a valid point of view, whether they agree with them or not, said Hendrix, also author of several books on relationships, including the bestseller Getting the Love You Want. They realize that “there are legitimate differences and they understand that they don’t live in each other’s brains.”
Healthy couples consider their contribution to the conflict.
Partners in healthy relationships “own their own stuff,” Bush said. They’re willing to look at how they’re contributing to the problem, she said.
Healthy couples fight fair.
Unlike unhealthy couples, they don’t name-call, insult, curse or hit below the belt, Bush said. They also don’t “bring up every problem that’s ever occurred.”
Instead, “they stick to the issue at hand and have a respectful, curious attitude.” Instead of being defensive and focusing on explaining themselves, they’re interested in what their partner has to say.
Healthy couples really listen.
They give each other their undivided attention. They don’t interrupt or make remarks such as “That’s not right” or “Where did you get such a stupid idea?” Hendrix said. Rather, they are “fully … present to their partner’s point of view.”
Healthy couples kiss and make up.
Typically, after an argument, healthy couples end up feeling supported, heard and understood, Bush said. Partners might apologize or say something like “I love you. We’re in this together,” she said.
Tips For Handling Conflict
Bush and Hendrix shared several tips for navigating conflict effectively.
Make an appointment to talk.
“When you have an issue with your partner, ask them if it’s OK to talk about it,” Hendrix said, which he calls “making an appointment.” This is important because not asking can trigger your partner’s anxiety, leading to a defensive reaction, he said. You might simply say, “Is now a good time?”
Talk about yourself.
Hendrix suggested using “I” statements, such as “I think, I feel, I hope, I want.” When your partner hears the word “you” – such as “you did this” or “why didn’t you do that” – this also can activate defensiveness, he said.
Pretend to be your partner.
Pretend that you’re looking through your partner’s eyes, Bush said. Describe aloud how you think your partner is feeling (e.g., a wife pretends to be her husband and says “I am Mike, and this is how I see it.”) Then your partner can respond by either agreeing or clarifying how they feel, she said.
Deal with conflict immediately.
“Anything hurtful and left unattended festers and grows bigger,” Hendrix said. That’s why “when there’s a breakdown, repair should occur immediately.”
Be specific about what you need or want.
“Ask for what you want in one or two sentences, and make it positive,” Hendrix said. By being specific, direct and concrete, you give your spouse a chance to meet your request.
For instance, instead of saying, “I wish you were always on time,” say, “The next time we have a movie or dinner date, I’d like that if you can’t make it, you’ll call me 15 minutes ahead of time, and let me know.”
“[Conflict] is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be the background music [of your relationship],” Bush said. She and Hendrix stressed the importance of showing your appreciation to your partner. For instance, you might say, “Thank you for listening to me” or “Thank you for sharing that,” Hendrix said.
Conflict is an indication that your “relationship has not been attended to in some way.” It gives couples the opportunity to identify this issue, address it, improve it and move on to enjoying your healthy relationship.