When you get two humans living in close proximity to each other for a length of time, there is bound to be debates and conflict. This fact doesn’t change when we’re talking about our husband, wife or partner. No matter how much we love someone, there are going to be times when we disagree and become frustrated with one another.
This is natural, and when handled correctly, healthy. Disagreements and/or conflicts, when explored with an open mind, will force us to see a different point of view which will stimulate growth. Conflict can actually create chemistry. A couple is stronger for having two individuals in it. There’s an old saying, “If both of us agree all the time, one of us isn’t necessary.”
There are, of course, levels to this. An honest disagreement about an element in our lives (money, family, work, etc.) doesn’t have to descend into anger and yelling. There are two points of view and, when we both keep level heads and use good conflict resolution strategies — which we’ll get to later — we’ll come up with a solution that, even if everyone isn’t thrilled about, we can both survive and/or thrive with.
“You can't win an argument. You can't because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”
Then there are the arguments that start when one partner says the wrong thing at the wrong time. A stressful day at work and a perceived unkind word after we get home can lead to a conflict where things can quickly get blown out of proportion.
Newlyweds often fear that their first major conflict means the end of their relationship, or at least what they imagined their married relationship would be. While it can be a shock to the system to realize that the honeymoon might be over, having disagreements is just part of the human experience. What we can control is our reaction to what we see and hear. If our partner says something that upsets us, we take a deep breath and know they didn’t intentionally mean to hurt our feelings (if we think they actually did mean to hurt us, that’s a much deeper issue). If we both hold this mindset, we know that, when natural disagreements occur, we can work the concern with a mindset where we’re not trying to “win.”
As one of my friends and mentors once said, “Learn to disagree well and choose your battles wisely.”
Check Your Attitude
In order to live with another person in a loving, healthy relationship, we must learn to know ourselves as much as we know our partner. Being aware and understanding our innate style of handling conflict is crucial.
There are people, for instance, who need to take some time when a disagreement occurs. If the discussion is becoming heated, they feel the need to tell their partner they need to stop and cool down a bit. This keeps the disagreement from escalating into a long-term conflict and saying things that we may regret saying.
Others, when there’s a disagreement, feel the need to get everything out in the open immediately and work things out in one sitting. They don’t feel the need to drag this out any longer than absolutely necessary. They prefer to have the argument, hash everything out and then be done with it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these philosophies; we’re all wired differently, and one will come more naturally to you than the other. Where couples run into difficulty is when each partner has a different natural strategy. The one who needs a moment is seen as “running away” from the discussion; the one who wants to “hash it out” is seen as not wanting to let anything go. If we don’t know our partner’s “conflict” style — and if we’re not aware of our own — this could be the recipe for disaster. If we recognize this about ourselves and our partner, however, we can both adjust our approaches and not play the “blame game.”
Common Conflict Behaviors
I once heard a corporate speaker give a presentation about conflict resolution, and what he shared has stuck with me ever since. While he was speaking about conflict more in the business arena, his lessons translate to the family home just as well, if not a little better.
He taught that there are six core behaviors we tend to use when conflict comes around. Most of us don’t use all six — we have our go-to “favorites” — but the use of any of these behaviors can cause a disagreement to spiral out of control. Not only do we not solve the problem that caused the conflict in the first place, but we start to damage the relationship in ways that are harder, if not impossible, to repair if left unchecked.
These six behaviors are:
Walk/Storm Out — This is more than the “I need to cool down” style mentioned earlier. This is when one partner unilaterally walks away, possibly after saying something deliberately designed to anger the other. That partner is then left alone, the argument still lingering in the air, with yet another reason to be angry.
The Silent Treatment — Again, this isn’t the “cool down” approach. Here, the argument has stopped but nothing has been resolved. The anger is still there, but one or both partners have shut down the lines of communication. The anger festers and looks for other places to erupt — and it will.
“You’re Wrong/I’m Right” — This is another way to shut down communication, by taking the “ultimate” stance that might end this argument. This is going to lead to other, deeper fights. When we say this to our partner, we’ve basically told them that their opinion doesn’t really matter to us.
Labeling the Other — Basically, we’re resorting to name calling, which has never ended a discussion well. “You’re stupid,” “You always/never…” and so on. When we do this, we’ve taken the heated discussion we were having and expanding it in ways that are not helpful, to say the least.
Venting to the Wrong People — While mentors and co-mentors might actually challenge us and our position, our friends are generally going to take our side (unless we’re spectacularly off base). What’s worse, they might help us vilify our partner. This gives us the “moral authority” to dig into our side of the argument, which makes it harder to compromise with our partner later. This isn’t helping; it’s hurting.
Vicious Attacks — This is the worst stage. This is when the attacks get vulgar and cruel and are deliberately designed to inflict pain. At the final stage, the attacks become physically violent.
When being honest with ourselves, we’ll recognize the behaviors in this list that we “default” to if we aren’t watching our attitudes and keeping our partner’s well-being in mind.
Just because we gravitate toward one or more of these mindsets doesn’t mean we’re powerless to stop ourselves. Just the opposite, actually, and this is where the “Three A’s of Change” come in. We are the only ones who can control our Actions. Also, just being Aware of this and Accepting it gives us the understanding to know when we’re about to fall into a negative reaction — it’s the “warning light” to avoid this and take action to do something constructive.
What should we do?
In our relationship with our life’s partner, conflicts are inevitable. Maintaining such a close bond with someone involves being able to compromise and find common ground to build the foundations of a happy, prosperous relationship. As life throws challenges our way, the goal is to find ways to overcome and move past them. And, as we get older, we gain experience that evolves us beyond what we were in the past; if our relationship is to continue, we must accept these changes in our partner and within ourselves.
In all of this, there are going to be moments and concerns where we don’t initially see eye to eye. In our previous post, we took a look at behaviors that couples sometimes use that not only fail to solve the issue between them but actively damage their relationship. The silent treatment, labeling our partner, vicious attacks and other actions we might be tempted to take can blow a minor disagreement up into a major destructive event.
Here are some better ways that my mentors and I have found that resolve the issue between our partners while respecting — and strengthening — our relationship.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
Stay and Solve — Storming away and unilaterally quitting the discussion is not going to solve the challenge or make our partner feel valued. Only by taking the time to work things out with them will we find a way through the issue. There may be times when the discussion gets heated and we need to take a time out, and that’s fine. It’s better to cool off than to say something that can’t be taken back. Taking a time out, however, is not quitting. We just have to communicate that we need some time — and accept it if it’s our partner who needs a break. It could be just five minutes to cool down or it could be a day or longer; it depends on the issue at hand, our emotions and our personalities. What’s important is that our partner knows that we’re still dedicated both to them and to finding a way through this challenge.
Ask Questions — When a conflict arises, it’s important to know exactly what the conflict is about. Sometimes there’s a miscommunication, and an argument can start from a simple misunderstanding. When we ask questions, not only are we getting a clearer view of the issue at hand, but our partner understands that we’re trying to see their side of it. Even if we still don’t agree after we’ve had the discussion, at least we’ll be working on the same problem. We should seek to understand so we can be better understood.
Also, when we get a clearer view of what they’re feeling, we might realize that they care far more about the issue than we do — if the issue at hand is a “10” in importance to them and just a “2” for us, it’s usually better to let them take the lead. If it’s a “2” for both of us, we can probably work out a solution quickly because neither of us cares that much. If the challenge is a “10” for both of us, however, we know that this is a topic that needs to be solved and needs to be handled with care and respect from both of us. We will only discover what we’re truly dealing with by asking the right questions. If we do, we get a clearer view of the entire situation, and that’s a crucial step into finding the solution.
Recognize that the World’s Not Black and White — There are times when we might have a completely different opinion than our partner about something, and sometimes this is just fine. We don’t have to agree in lockstep on every topic that comes our way. We can agree to disagree and come to the conclusion that we can both be right (or at least that neither of us is wrong). This can be a good thing, actually, because when we bring different ideas and viewpoints to the relationship, it can make it stronger. This only works, though, if we recognize that different viewpoints aren’t something to fight about; we shouldn’t have major arguments over minor issues. While we should be in agreement about life’s major choices (to have children or not, where we want to live, career paths, etc.), there are many other issues that, in the long view, just don’t matter. Choosing our battles wisely ensures our partner knows that we love them and that we always have their best interests at heart.
Focus on Specific Behaviors — When we hear phrases like “You always…,” or “You never…” come out of our mouth, we need to see the warning flags of our own behavior. When partners start to label each other, that’s a sign that communication is breaking down, and the initial disagreement is about to spiral into a much bigger argument — one that can’t be solved in this manner. When we focus on a certain action or behavior that hurt our feelings or in some other way is damaging to the relationship, that’s when we not only bring our partner’s attention to it, but also give them our viewpoint. “When you see the clothes hamper is full, it would mean a lot to me if you’d run a load of laundry,” is a much better line of communication than “You never clean up after yourself! Why are you always such a slob?” Making our partner defensive isn’t an effective way to solve a challenge.
Turn to a Trusted Mentor — In most cases, our friends will take our side, no matter if we’re in the wrong or not. They want us to feel better and if that means villainizing our partner, so be it. A mentor, however, will listen to the situation and give us their honest opinion. If they believe we’re in the right, they can tell us so, and give us some ideas from their own experience to solve the issue. If they believe we’re in the wrong, they’ll tell us that, as well, along with ways we can modify our own behavior and bring our best selves back to our relationship. Either way, they can guide us with organizing our thoughts, see ourselves in an impartial light and encourage us to do the right thing for ourselves and our partner.
Fight Fairly and with Respect — Conflicts will happen, no matter how much we love our partner. As unpleasant as those times are, they’re just a part of human nature. How we react to these moments, however, is completely within our control, and these are the moments that will define our relationship. If we have the kind of bond with our partner where we value them and their well-being — and they value ours — almost every point of conflict can be worked out and the relationship will only grow stronger. If we feel we must “win” every disagreement, however, our bond will start to erode until there’s nothing left. The victory will be hollow, to say the least. We can stand up for ourselves and our beliefs without tearing our partner down in the process.
By watching our words, attitudes and actions, we can let our partner know that we value them and their own opinions and viewpoints. We can both “win” when we keep the bigger picture — living our best lives together — in harmony.