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Is it healthy to fight in a romantic relationship? How can you work together to resolve conflict in a calm and constructive manner?
Conflict is natural in a long-term relationship. Even the most amazing relationships will go through phases of conflict and troubled communication. But conflict can actually be a good thing because it presents an opportunity to negotiate individual differences and establish boundaries.
Here’s advice for couples on how to resolve relationship conflict peacefully and productively.
How to Resolve Relationship Conflict
In a healthy relationship, conflict is unavoidable. Couples that don’t have conflicts will end up falling out of love because of suppressed emotions. The key to handling relationship conflict is not to allow it to escalate into a full-blown argument, and if it does, discuss it in a constructive manner. Here’s how to resolve relationship conflicts with respect and composure.
Fight With Courtesy
It’s important to approach conflict with an argumentative style that’s respectful and relatively positive. This is because humans have a negativity bias—that is, we focus much more on negative emotions and experiences than positive ones. It usually takes five positive interactions in a relationship to offset just one negative interaction. Having arguments in a respectful, positive way keeps them from contributing to the negative interaction count. Furthermore, it’s important to enter conflict with a cool head because explosive emotions can exacerbate the situation.
Here are five rules of thumb for fighting with courtesy:
- Approach one problem at a time. Don’t use issues from the past as artillery in the present.
- Start arguments as a calm discussion, instead of exploding suddenly and angrily.
- Avoid absolutes, such as “you never…” or “I always…”
- Use words and actions that prevent escalation—you may avoid the phrase, “You’re just like your mother,” or fold your hands to keep from—literally—pointing fingers.
- Know how to end arguments, instead of letting them drag on—perhaps one of you goes for a run to calm down, or you agree to sleep on it.
TITLE: The Happiness Project
AUTHOR: Gretchen Rubin
Know When to Walk Away
Some people feel anxiety over conflict resolution because, in their mind, the goal of conflict resolution is to make the other person happy—to meet their needs. But you shouldn’t compromise or agree to their terms just for the sake of getting it over with—this will breed resentment and ill-will.
Sometimes, there is just no resolution that will satisfy both parties. No matter how deft the conversation is, there are irreconcilable differences sometimes. In these instances, it’s up to you to decide if you can settle for a less-than-ideal solution for you, or if you can live with the consequences of sticking firm to what you need.
If you decide to stick firmly to what you need, explain what needs of yours aren’t being met by proposed solutions and why you’re walking away from solving the issue. Then, know that you’ll have to accept whatever consequences there are.
TITLE: Difficult Conversations
AUTHOR: Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen
Knowing how to resolve relationship conflict peacefully and productively is important. No less important is knowing how to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. Follow these three ground rules for minimizing conflict in your relationship:
Communicate Your Rules
Many conflicts arise because people don’t communicate their “rules.” Everyone has their own rules, and no one’s rules are more or less correct than someone else’s; they’re all arbitrary. Still, we expect others to live by our rules, even if we never articulated or they never explicitly agreed to those rules. In fact, every time we get upset with someone, the root of our agitation is that we feel that person broke one of our rules.
For example, imagine that you have a rule that people who care about each other show their interest by asking the other person questions about themselves. Now imagine that your friend has a conflicting rule that people who care about each other don’t prod for personal information, but rather share information about themselves unsolicited so that the other person feels free to do the same. If neither of you articulate your rule but expect the other person to abide by it, you’ll both end up extremely upset and questioning the quality of your relationship; you’ll be waiting for your friend to ask you questions and your friend will be waiting for you to open up.
In order to avoid such conflicts, it’s critical to your relationships—both personal and professional—that you:
- Become aware of your rules, especially those that directly impact your relationships (such as rules that govern how people show love and respect).
- Clearly communicate your rules to the other person.
- Be willing to listen to and follow some of the other person’s rules, as well
Understand Your Partner’s Rules
You’ll have stronger relationships when you understand people’s rules because you’ll be able to predict and interpret their behavior and make them happy by fulfilling their rules. Still, you probably won’t be able to prevent all conflict, so follow these steps next time you get upset with someone:
- Stop and remember that you’re upset because of your rules, not because of the other person’s behavior. Ask yourself whether you value your relationship or your rules more.
- Remind yourself that, although your rules are important to you, they are arbitrary. Everyone’s rules are different.
- Let the other person know that you’re upset.
- Explain the rule they broke, and ask what their rule is for the situation. Try to distinguish between threshold rules and personal standards, so that you both especially avoid breaking each other’s musts.
- Find a way to satisfy both of your rules.
Even when you know someone else’s rules, you can still run into challenges when you, or other people, have sub-rules and exceptions to your rules. For example, you may have a rule that if someone is listening attentively, then they should respond to what you’re saying—unless you’re talking about something serious or sensitive, then they should listen silently. Be aware of your sub-rules so that you can communicate them to others, and make an effort to learn about their sub-rules so that you can avoid violating them. Uncommunicated sub-rules can create issues in a relationship when both people think they’re clear on the rules and then one of them violates the fine print without realizing it.
Don’t Let Problems Fester
Address problems in your relationship early, before they grow into larger issues. The most powerful antidote to problems is early, frequent communication. Explain your rules and interrupt your pattern when you get into arguments that devolve into senseless bickering.
If you don’t address problems when they’re small, they can evolve into harmful patterns as they go through these four stages:
- Resistance: It’s common to reach a point in your relationship when you feel bothered by something that your partner says or does. At this stage, it’s critical to let your partner know how you’re feeling in order to prevent your feelings from graduating to the next stage.
- Resentment: If you haven’t addressed your feelings of resistance, they compound and turn into resentment, which causes you to feel angry with your partner for the things they say or do. Resentment impedes intimacy by creating an emotional barrier that only grows unless you address it.
- Rejection: If you allow your resentment to build, you soon start looking for ways to reject your partner. You find opportunities to attack your partner and you think that everything they do is annoying. At this point, you begin to separate yourself physically as well as emotionally.
- Repression: To cope with the pain of your disintegrating relationship, you eventually repress your feelings and disconnect. Although this eliminates your pain, it also kills the passion and love in your relationship. At this point, your partner essentially becomes your roommate.
Couples often get embroiled in bitter, cyclical conflicts that appear to resist all efforts toward resolution. The longer we perpetuate these cycles, however, the more entrenched conflicts become, leading to suppressed emotions and resentment. No matter how “in love” you may be with your partner, a conflict can extinguish all the romance and passion between you if it’s not addressed in a timely, peaceful, and constructive manner. If you want to learn how to resolve relationship conflict effectively, check out these further reading suggestions from our library:
In The Anatomy of Peace, the Arbinger Institute—a leading consultant in conflict resolution—discusses how we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result. By understanding the mechanics of the conflict mindset, you’ll find how we make conflict worse, how we invite the mistreatment we desire an end to, and how we blind ourselves to the true causes of our interpersonal problems.
Difficult conversations are a constant throughout life, at work, at home, and in the world. We never outgrow them, or get a promotion that saves us from them, or meet a person who’s so perfect for us we never have to have them.
But difficult conversations, if we engage in them successfully, are the mark of a healthy relationship. In fact, the success and survival of any relationship, business or personal, depends on the ability of those involved to master difficult conversations. In Difficult Conversations, you will learn how to resolve relationship conflict, how to ask for that raise at work, and how to get to the bottom of your feud with your neighbor.
Imagine that men and women come from two different planets. When you think that way, it’s suddenly easier to understand why men and women tend to communicate differently, behave differently, and have different emotional needs.
In this book, author John Gray breaks down the primary differences between men and women and gives comprehensive advice on how to resolve relationship conflict, how to show support to your partner in the way they crave, and how to be more fulfilled with your relationship.
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