I came home after a dinner with friends to hungry cats, wet laundry still in the washing machine, and muddy footprints tracked across the carpet.
I was tired. And I felt my tension rise. I’d expected those chores to be covered.
He had been out in the yard, digging a French drain to keep the crawl space from drawing too much rainwater during the winter storms.
He was tired from the wet, dirty work. He’d expected me to be pleased by the effort.
By the time we sorted through missed expectations, we were both impatient and irritated. We didn’t feel like talking — probably good because neither of us felt like listening, either.
Every relationship, whether it’s with your kid or your partner or your boss or your mom or the computer customer service guy who can’t seem to understand what isn’t working, has moments of tension and challenge.
Sometimes it is big stuff — like how to cope with a cheating spouse, or how to work with a boss who doesn’t share your values. Other times — most times — getting through the day requires us to respond to a variety of small tensions — like chores and changing schedules, parenting dilemmas, billpaying, or coordinating vacation time with co-workers.
How you handle conflicts — big and small — determines the relationship’s resilience and how good you’ll feel going forward. Handle the conflict with respect and grace and you’ll be fortified with positive energy. But if you blow it and spin off into a contrail of blame, anger and hostility, everybody is going to suffer.
Over the years, as I’ve worked to learn and grow in my own marriage, interviewed relationship experts, and written dozens of articles on the topic, four pieces of advice have stuck with me. These are the things I can actually do. when I use them they make a difference.
- Grant do-overs. Stuff is going to happen. People — good people — are going to make big, messy mistakes. Heck, you are going to make big, messy mistakes. But sometimes the best way to get through the upset is to give the other individual the benefit of the doubt and move on. They blew it, or perhaps you did, but nobody meant to cause harm.A do-over allows you to start again without rehashing. Give these freely (aloud or quietly to yourself) and ask for them, too, when you know you’ve stepped out of bounds and need to start over. Instead of overanalyzing and blaming, just acknowledge the conversation has gone off the rails, drop it, and do it over. Better this time.
- Shut up and listen. All right, I’ll confess: I have a tendency to over-talk everything. So I’m continually working on this one. Say what you must, then just shut up. So many times relationship squabbles are a product of miscommunication or misunderstanding. But you aren’t going to clear those up without equal air time. When you spend time listening (without rolling your eyes), you’ll gain clarity. This will help you find resolution, or at least peace.
- Pause, breathe, leave. Often we are triggered by an event that sends us spiraling into bad behavior. Then, instead of being able to deal with the real issue, we have to mop up from the drama. When you feel things start to escalate, take a deep breath, and respectfully announce that you are going to take a timeout and will come back in five or 10 minutes to talk over the issue.Don’t just storm off — this isn’t the time for door slamming — but don’t come out too soon either. Go to a back bedroom or somewhere quiet. Take deep breaths and let the raw emotion diffuse a bit. The break will calm you both down so that when you come back you can lead with compassion and curiosity rather than contempt.
- Take an outsider’s view. Sometimes the best way through a conflict is to approach the dilemma as an outsider. When we can step out of the drama and look at the situation as a distant observer we are better able reason through it, according to research by Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross (2014). Want a simple way to do this? Try talking to yourself about the conflict in third person, using your own name when evaluating the circumstances.
Any relationship is bound to have ups and downs. Become aware in the moment and take simple steps to diffuse difficult emotions. You will be more likely to work through the stress than get caught up in it.
Grossman, I., & Kross, E. (2014). Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1571 – 1580.