Most of the couples who come to see me complain of communication problems, which is a coded way of saying they are fighting more than usual. Disagreements between two independent intelligent people who live together are inevitable, so it is not the presence of conflict that is a problem. But how couples fight is something we do address in therapy to help the relationship survive, particularly as many of the things they fundamentally disagree on (money, in-laws, etc) are unsolvable.
Here then, are some golden rules on how to improve your conflict resolution skills in your relationship. These skills can also be applied in family relationships, friendships and work, but it tends to be our spouses who push our buttons the best:
1. Start softly
By this I don’t necessarily mean use a soft voice, although that can help, but if you start a discussion by being critical of your partner (going straight in with character assassination) or even contemptuous (sarcastic, hostile, eye rolling) then the discussion will generally be doomed to failure. Most of us already know how to manage our differences with calm and respectful discourse, it is usually how we function with colleagues at work, so apply the same rules when you are talking to your spouse, and don’t be drawn into accusations and assumptions.
2. Retain control of your physiology and emotions
When our pulse rises our body starts to flood with stress hormones and adrenaline, preparing for ‘fight or flight’. The more our emotional state takes over, the less our clear-thinking state can function. None of this is helpful when we are trying to have a discussion with our partner about a difficult issue. The key is to be mindful of what’s happening in your own body, pay attention to your stress levels and learn how to calm yourself down with breathing, or if necessary by asking to take a break from the discussion to allow you to calm down.
3. Don’t bring up the past
Arguments between couples can often descend into flinging those long stored up resentments at each other. Transgressions or hurts from before can’t always be forgiven, but what happened has happened and can’t be changed. If you want to move on then leave the past where it belongs and focus on making the now better, otherwise you will only keep re-opening old wounds.
4. Accept your partner’s influence
Research shows that partners who have the emotional intelligence to give and take, and accept the other person’s point of view, tend to have happier relationships. You don’t have to be a doormat, but learn to share the power in the relationship rather than dominate and you will both be happier.
5. Don’t go in to the discussion needing to win
Compromise often doesn’t feel good, but it’s an essential skill. Each of you will gain and lose something, but the primary goal is to take care of the relationship and not your own ego.
6. Learn to take a time out
Once the conversation starts going off the rails and you can feel yourself flooding with stress hormones, then don’t keep going, it won’t end well. Often couples I see descend quickly into contempt, retaliation, door slamming or even violence. Successful couples, however, use repair attempts such as gentle humour, making silly faces to calm things down, or just calling a time out so both partners can retreat and then reconnect to talk again later.
Whether you are in a new relationship or have been together forever, it is important to know that conflict is part of the deal of being with someone. But if you can fight well, then conflict and its repair can actually strengthen your bond rather than destroy it. It is never too late to learn effective relationship skills. If I can help, then drop me a line via my website.
If the subject matter in this article resonates with you, then counselling might be a good option to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.