6. Push through the avoidance.
Couples get very anxious about conflict. Many avoid it altogether. How often have you heard couples proudly declare, “Oh, we never fight”?
But staying conflict-free isn’t a marker of a happy relationship. Conflict is inevitable; it’s how you handle it together that matters, Batshaw says. And when done right, conflict leads to growth. (Here are some tips for constructive conflict.)
If a fight does occur, another common reaction is for one or both partners to apologize profusely and say that everything is fine. “There’s so much anxiety that comes up in both individuals about what it means that they’re having a fight,” Batshaw says. “Like it’s the beginning of the end.”
But tiptoeing around the issues is a major reason why couples “don’t grow or move forward,” he says. Instead, they “stay fixated on these little things and then apologize without looking at what’s underlying them.”
7. Listen, don’t fix.
Experts agree that it’s important to empathically listen to your partner, and try to understand where they’re coming from. Before you talk about the solutions, make sure you both understand each other and your core concerns.
8. Collaborate on a solution.
Partners will often come to the table with solutions, except it’s their own solutions. And this isn’t helpful. Instead, Batshaw gives the example of a “conversation you can work from:” She says “I have to live in a neater place, you have to do this, that and the other.” “It’s one thing for him to say, ‘I’m messy, too bad,’ it’s another thing for the guy to say, ‘We can’t just do it your way. I understand we’re far apart, but I’m willing to compromise.’”
From there, you can begin collaborating. This means brainstorming solutions as a team, a key difference from the problem-solving people have done on their own. Batshaw describes this kind of brainstorming as relational, and “a new process, a new pattern of problem-solving” that involves both people. It’s as simple as saying, “let’s brainstorm about how we can try to find some solutions to this issue.”
This doesn’t mean that everything has to be collaborative, but you want to approach the talk with a “collaborative spirit” instead of “I’ve figured out how we’re doing to solve this,” he says.
9. Don’t focus on the fiery feelings.
As Solley says, in a conversation, “Anger, frustration or irritation may be there, but those are not the most important feelings. The more important feelings will be something softer and more vulnerable like anxiety, fear, hurt or sadness.” He describes anger as a shield that stops people from feeling the softer feelings.
Emotion can be used positively, Bricker says. He gives the following example: After a wife uses a softened startup, the husband says that he appreciates what she’s saying but he feels like he’s being taken advantage of, which makes him really upset. He might say, “I feel like you don’t care about my wants or feelings.” The wife might respond, “I do care about them, so tell me how I can let you know that I care about your needs.”
It’s no longer about the socks, Bricker says, but about meaningful conversation and connection.
If the conversation does get heated, take a break. Experts suggest taking a timeout, anywhere from a few minutes to 20, depending on how you’re feeling. If you’re really upset, agree to talk the next day, when you’ve cooled off.
10. Set up some structure.
Batshaw says that daily chores are one of the biggest “little” things couples who live together fight about. He suggests before moving in together that couples “set up some structure about who’s doing what because you’re shifting roles in the most significant way, he says. That is, your home becomes “sort of [like] running your business with each other.”
11. Get help.
“If you find that your conflicts are getting worse over what used to be a small concern and you’re not able to talk it through in the ways described above, it’s better to get help sooner than later,” Solley says. So consider seeking counseling.
In sum, when it comes to resolving the “minor” issues in your relationship, as Solley says, “decide what is really important to you and why (at the level of feelings and what it represents), and then try to have a civil conversation about it.”