Conflict gets a bad rap. We automatically assume that conflict will collapse a relationship. Some of us avoid conflict like the plague, thinking that if we close our eyes to a potential clash, it doesn’t exist.
“Engaging in conflict isn’t going to end the relationship, it’s avoiding the conflict [that might],” according to Michael Batshaw, LCSW, a New York City-based psychologist who specializes in couples and author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged.
He said that, “No problem is too small to acknowledge in a relationship.” Michigan relationship expert Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, agreed, and said, “sweat the small stuff.” Her almost 24-year research study with the same couples found that if you don’t address the small issues in your relationship, they just evolve into a bigger problem that’s then “really hard to unpack.”
But how do you make sure that conflict doesn’t ruin your relationship and instead helps it grow? The good news is that “most fighting comes from skill deficits,” according to Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of the book The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage.
So you can learn to approach conflict in a constructive and effective way. Below are tips to help you do just that.
But just remember that these are general guidelines. “Couples relationships —as all human relationships—are complex and operate at multiple levels with potentially dozens of choice points at any given moment in time,” noted Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy.
Work on your listening skills. Communication is key to resolving conflict. The bedrock of good communication? Fully listening to your partner without building a case in your head of how your partner is wrong, said Batshaw, also author of the forthcoming Things You Need to Know Before Getting Married: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage.
Couples who are stuck in conflict are unable to empathize with their partner, he said. For tips, see our article on active listening and effective speaking.
Participate in shared problem solving. Consider the concerns behind your perspective. Heitler helps her clients lay out their concerns, so they can then brainstorm solutions together, instead of each partner arguing his or her point.
For instance, one couple kept fighting about parking: He didn’t want his wife to park in the parking garage when running her errands downtown; she thought this was ridiculous because a parking garage was sometimes her only option to find a space. So they looked deeper into their concerns, said Heitler, who co-created an online program called Power of Two, which helps couples build successful relationships and problem-solve effectively.
What really concerned him were the narrow spaces, which resulted in the car getting scratched or dented by other car doors. The final straw was her backing the car into a pole. Ultimately, his concern was paying for the expensive damages. What concerned her was finding a parking spot to run errands and get to important engagements like doctors’ appointments. Sometimes, there were no spots outside.
During their brainstorming session, he suggested buying a wide rear-view mirror for her car so she’s less likely to bang poles, and offered to drive her into town, which is easier now that he’s working from home. She said that she’d be more selective about finding a space in the parking garage and drive up to the upper levels, where the cars aren’t so crowded. She’d park in the middle of the space to prevent other car doors from banging into hers. She also decided to park on the outskirts of town and walk, because she wanted to get more physical activity into her day.
“The assumption is every concern of yours is a concern of mine,” Heitler said. Plus, “You can get a win-win solution by finding an action plan that’s responsive to all the concerns.” This means that couples don’t feel like one is surrendering to the other. Both partners win because their concerns are answered.
“By listening to each other’s concerns and each trying to be responsive, they came up with a whole new set of solutions,” Heitler said. (She noted that you can only go through shared problem solving when you’re both in a “relaxed and positive emotional state.”)
Most importantly, she said, in a tug of war, this couple would be against each other and reacting with negative feelings, such as frustration. Instead, they had a fun time brainstorming together, and ended up “being more loving, intimate and connected than ever.”
Address specific behaviors. Orbuch, also the author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, suggested addressing specific behaviors rather than personality traits. She said that this is easier to hear for the other person and he or she has a good idea of what to work on.
Talk when you’re calm. “The atmosphere has to stay emotionally safe enough so that both people can put out each of their ideas/feelings/experience about the conflict and then they can have a respectful conversation about it without attachment to who is right or who is wrong,” according to Solley.
Don’t start a conversation “if you feel overwhelmed by emotion because it clouds your thinking and distorts things,” Batshaw said. He added that “You also don’t want to be overly detached.” It’s important to think about what you want to say in a thoughtful way.
If emotions run high, take a break. Again, it’s vital to be calm while you’re talking about the conflict, but realistically someone is bound to become upset, frustrated or irritated. If you find yourself getting emotional, take a break to calm down. If you can’t calm down, “table the discussion for another day,” Batshaw said.
Create boundaries. “Have some boundaries about what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t, [such as] no cursing, no physical interaction, no yelling or screaming,” Batshaw said. “Just like on a soccer field, as soon as people go out of bounds, the play stops,” Heitler added.
Start with side-to-side conversations. In her research, Orbuch found that “men are much more likely to be able to communicate more clearly, easily and effectively, when talking about a difficult topic” when they’re doing an activity such as walking, biking or hiking.” Side-to-side conversations may be a good way to start.
Apologize. Orbuch said that an apology can go a long way. “We all make mistakes and we need to acknowledge that we had a part in an argument that [gets] out of hand,” she said. You don’t have to say, “I’m sorry I said that,” but it can be as simple as “I’m sorry, we’re fighting.”
Seek counseling. If you’re stuck on a specific conflict or one of you doesn’t want to talk about it, even when pressed, consider seeing a couples therapist, Batshaw said. “The sooner you get [help], the easier, more cost effective, and the longer you can enjoy a happier relationship together!” Solley said.
In general, you want to avoid steamrolling and resentful surrender, he said. “These are both efforts to ease short-term pain, but they result in chronic damage to the relationship that builds up to misery and animosity in the long-term.”
They key also is not to be afraid of conflict, Batshaw said. As mentioned above, he explained that avoiding conflict actually gets couples into trouble.
Also, Solley added that “John Gottman’s research shows that about two-thirds of a couple’s problems actually never go away. In successful couples the difference is that they learn to talk about the problems in a flexible and considerate way, with perspective and without blaming each other for their differences.”
Photo by klasspieter, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.