Every couple has conflict, and some issues are complicated or even impossible to completely resolve, such as differences in parenting styles, difficult family members, children or exes, and financial stress or job loss. What distinguishes happy couples from those who are miserably together or those who call it quits is how they raise disagreements and how they repair after conflict.
Here are some rules for successfully navigating the emotionally-charged waters of conflict:
INTRODUCING CONFLICT (SENDER ROLE)
- Insure privacy, directness and clarity, such as, "I want to speak to you about something that is bothering me" or "Something that has been on my mind". Make sure you have privacy when you introduce conflict and when you discuss it. No one wants to be "called out" publicly.
- Ask, "is this a good time?" If not, agree when you can talk together - preferably within the next 24 hours, if not sooner. Waiting too long increases feelings of dread and anxiety. If more than an hour or two, give your partner an idea of what the topic is so that they don't have to wonder. "I'd like to talk about how dinner went last night," or "how we are dealing with our finances."
- Assume good intentions, perhaps even leading with, "I'm sure it was unintentional on your part but …".
- State your concern in "I" language with an emotion: "It hurt my feelings when ….", "I felt uncomfortable when ….", "I have been feeling left out/disrespected/unloved when ….".
- Avoid blaming your partner or generalizing, which often begins, "You always/never …".
- Avoid statements that state or assume you know what your partner felt or intended. Own your assumption by saying, "What I told myself about that was …".
- Stick with one discrete issue or behavior and speak in "sound bites" of one or two sentences at a time. It's hard for the receiver to digest an "emotional dump" or a "kitchen sink" approach that includes multiple issues. If you are the receiver, ask your partner to choose one issue to focus on, and agree to address the others later.
- Limit discussions to no more than one hour. Longer discussions tend to be counterproductive as partners feel emotionally flooded or fatigued.
- Agree to switch roles as Sender and Receiver if time allows, or schedule another time.
BEING OPEN TO HEARING & UNDERSTANDING (RECEIVER ROLE)
- Remind yourself that in relationships, needing to be "right" is a recipe for being unhappy. Each of us has our own experience of what was said or what happened, and it means something different to each of us. Listen to your partner's experience and reflect that back to them WITHOUT "getting your two cents in" (such as saying, "Well, if you recall, I only said that after you said x,y,z …").
- Restate what you heard as a receiver, "So what I'm hearing you say is that when I did/said x, you felt y, and what it meant to you is z, did I get that right?" Invite them to add to what they shared by saying, "Is there more about that?" Then reflect that piece back, "So now what I hear is …, is that right?"
- Step into your partner's experience. What your partner experienced DOES make sense if you look at things through their eyes. You don't have to share their perspective or agree with them, but you DO need to be able to understand why they feel and react the way they do. Set aside the urge to defend yourself or tell your side.
- Summarize what you've heard your partner share and validate their experience by saying, "It makes sense to me now that you feel that way because …." using your own words. This is the most important statement you will make, because it lets your partner know you really "get it."
- Ask for time to reflect on what your partner has shared with you, especially if you feel emotionally flooded. We don't think clearly when we are in "fight or flight" mode, and no constructive conversation can take place . We need a minimum of 20 minutes to calm down, using deep breathing or meditation, exercise, soothing music and so forth. Agree on a time that same day or in the morning to return to this conversation.
- Once you feel calmer and have quiet time, reflect on your what you heard and ask yourself with rigorous honesty, "What did I do to contribute to this situation?" and "How can I see things from their point of view?" Share these insights with your partner - being able to see and own your "piece of the pie" reflects maturity and strength.
Certain conflict behavior is never acceptable: Name calling or belittling each other; threats of harm, retaliation, intimidation or of leaving the relationship; physical control or harm. When you or your partner engages in this behavior, seeking professional guidance is advised.
Using these Rules of Engagement for resolving conflict will set the tone for the next stage of conflict resolution: problem solving together with less defensiveness and greater compassion. That's a win-win for both of you!