Conflict is bad. Healthy couples hardly fight. These are the most common misconceptions about conflict. Because as Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, said, “Relationships free of conflict are unrealistic.” Conflict is inevitable because differences are inevitable.
Each partner comes from “a unique set of circumstances related to their families of origin, perhaps their culture, their education, friendships, life experience, emotional makeup, philosophy of life,” said Nancy Gardner, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in couples and is certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy.
Conflict also can be great for your relationship. “[A]ll conflict is an opportunity for growth and healing,” said Derhally, who specializes in couples and is trained in Imago Relationship Therapy. When couples work through conflict constructively, it’s an opportunity to better understand your partner and get closer, she said.
Gardner cited John Gottman’s research, which found that some couples with good, lasting marriages also had frequent arguments. The key was their “ability to repair after a conflict.”
Derhally always tells her clients that it’s how you fight that makes all the difference. Below, she and Gardner shared their suggestions for making conflict constructive — and for growing closer, instead of apart.
Take a timeout.
If you’re feeling combative, pause and agree to return to the conflict after you’ve calmed down, Derhally said. Continuing to argue when you’ve been triggered just escalates the conflict. “When you are emotionally reactive the part of your brain that’s being triggered — the brain stem — is the part that’s function is for our survival.” That means you’re not operating from a logical place. And you’re bound to say hurtful things you’ll regret.
Mirror what your partner is saying.
Derhally suggested couples use “mirroring,” a key component of Imago Relationship Therapy. “Mirroring is essentially repeating back what your partner said without imposing your own judgment or interpretation.” This creates a safe space for your partner to feel heard, she said. Mirroring requires good listening skills and not expressing your opinion in that moment, she said. Instead, each partner switches back and forth being the sender (saying what you need to say) and the receiver (mirroring that back).
Empathize and validate your partner.
According to Derhally, these are two critical components of Imago Relationship Therapy. She defined validation as “making sense of your partner’s world, even if you don’t agree with them.” For example: “[I]t makes sense that you snapped at me this morning because you were under so much stress at work this week.” While it’s not OK that your partner snapped at you, this brings understanding to the relationship, she said.
“Empathy is when you try to see things from your partner’s view instead of just your own.” It fuels connection. Derhally shared this example: Your partner didn’t take out the trash because they’re exhausted. You say to yourself: “Jane has been having a really rough time at work lately. Taking the trash out is probably the last thing on her mind; she just needs to relax tonight and unwind.”
Avoid being defensive or critical.
“Any time you criticize your partner or get defensive when they bring up an issue with you, you open the door to a conflict that could have the potential to get very nasty,” Derhally said. Instead, practice “empathic assertiveness”: Express your feelings without being critical or defensive.
According to Derhally, instead of saying, “You are always so disrespectful and irresponsible when you don’t think to call me when you’re going to be late!” say, “I felt hurt when you didn’t call me when you were going to be late.”
Both statements get the same point across, she said. However, the latter helps the relationship. It helps the other partner be more receptive to hearing and understanding your message.
Notice your pattern, and talk about it.
Research has found that there’s a pattern to most couples’ conflicts, Gardner said. A common pattern involves one partner moving toward or pursuing their partner, while the other partner withdraws. The more one partner pursues, the more the other withdraws, creating a cycle.
Gardner suggested noticing your pattern and commenting on it. This “helps couples stay out of repetitive negative cycles.” For instance, when it starts, the couple can say: “Oh, here we go again. This is our pattern. I am asking you to be with me [and] feeling insecure about whether you love me. You are just trying to spend some time working in the garden, which I know you enjoy. But you are afraid you might hurt my feelings, so you are pulling away from me in order to not say the wrong thing.”
In other words, one person isn’t to blame, Gardner said. Rather, it’s a pattern both partners create.
“If the more withdrawn person can remember that his partner needs reassurance that she is loved, then they can stop the pattern. If the more pursuing partner can say she is fine with her partner doing something on his own. But [she] needs to know she is loved, this too can change the pattern.”
Zero in on primary emotions.
When there is a conflict, explore your own underlying emotions and needs, Gardner said. For instance, your spouse makes plans without you. You feel angry and left out. According to Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight and founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, your anger is a secondary emotion. (Anger also pushes partners away.)
As Gardner noted, “The key to talking out the conflict, according to Johnson, is to find the primary emotion underneath the anger and to share it with the partner.” So underneath your anger might be hurt and a feeling that something else is more important than you. When you share this with your partner, you’re vulnerable and softer, she said. And your partner might be able to hear you. This creates an opportunity for connection. Your partner might reassure you that they love you and you’re important to them. They still might pursue their plans. But you won’t feel like you’re not important (or loved).
Again, every couple has conflict. And it’s an opportunity to get closer. The key is to navigate your conflict constructively. However, if your conflict is too much to manage, seek professional help, Derhally said. It “can make all the difference.”
Couple disagreeing photo available from Shutterstock