Many of us feel uncomfortable with conflict. In fact, some of us hate conflict. We try to avoid it and hope it goes away. We’re like an ostrich sticking our head in the sand. We like to think “time heals” but more often than not, emotions intensify, and then there’s one incident that breaks the camel’s back. We distance from the one we love most, or we get critical, defensive or contemptuous. Either way (distancing or attacking) hurts.
There are benefits to conflicts when handled constructively. We find our own voice, and learn to assert ourselves effectively. Instead of getting harsh, we learn to soften and express genuine caring so we don’t damage the marriage. We create win-win solutions so we both feel honored and cherished.
If you struggle with conflict, you’ll want to read these quick tips.
Constructive Conflict Management ~ Do’s and Don’ts
Do: Even the best of relationships have conflicts. It’s how they are handled that makes the difference. Develop a solid friendship, rich with loving feelings, so you can draw on your reserves when you have a conflict.
Don’t allow dysfunctional patterns to take you over when your partner is emotionally unavailable. Don’t attack, accuse, criticize, withdraw or shut down. Don’t distance from your own feelings or exit the relationship. Don’t drink too much, eat too much, work too much, spend too much money, get distracted with children, gamble or have an affair.
Do: Center yourself when your partner is not able to connect with you in healthy ways. Use the suggestions below for self-soothing and communicating.
Don’t discuss a conflict when you are too angry or too hurt. When you are too stressed, your brain goes into fight, flight or freeze. You can’t think rationally or use good communication skills.
Do: Take a time-out for a minimum of 20 minutes, or longer if needed. Self-soothe before talking about a conflict. Meditate in nature, hike by a river nestled in a forest, read inspirational literature, listen to a meditation CD, talk to trusted friends, listen to beautiful music, soak in the bath tub, work out at the gym, or go for a run.
Don’t discuss conflicts when either of you has been drinking or impaired by drugs. Don’t have a heated discussion when you are driving. This is a set-up for failure.
Do: Keep yourselves emotionally and physically safe. Alcohol and some other drugs impair your ability to think clearly and be compassionate. You want to be as alert and relaxed as possible so you can manage your emotions and thoughts constructively.
Do: Set appropriate boundaries for self-care. Make agreements to take a time-out to cool down for a minimum of 20 minutes, or longer if needed. If these agreements are not honored and you don’t feel safe, seek professional help immediately. Remove yourself from harmful situations.
Don’t begin a conversation with yelling, accusing, criticism or contempt.
Do: Speak with a softer, caring tone of voice. Affirm your partner, or use a term of endearment. Remind your partner of how important he or she is to you. “You are the love of my life. I want to find ways to strengthen our marriage. That’s why we need to talk about this and create win-win solutions.”
Don’t make generalities like “you always” or “you never.” Don’t talk on and on. Attacking your partner will elicit a defensive response. Although you may feel more powerful for a time, you will end up feeling lonely because you’ve damaged the relationship.
Do: Help your partner feel safe. Keep your dialogue personal and specific. Speak about yourself and your own feelings. Speak in short sound bites and make sure your partner understands you before you offer the next sound bite.
Don’t discuss conflicts in the bedroom or at the kitchen table. You do not want to associate the bedroom with conflict. The bedroom is for rest, sleep and romance. We don’t digest food well when we are emotionally upset.
Do: Choose a neutral place to talk with your partner, e.g., the guest bedroom, back porch, the garage or a place outside.
Don’t wait for your partner to initiate healthy conflict management.
Do: Adopt this attitude: You are 100% responsible for the behaving in wise ways, no matter what. When you change, the marriage changes.
Don’t blame your partner for your feelings.
Do: Take responsibility for your feelings; they are yours.
Don’t stay on the surface of an argument. Don’t debate about who is right and who is wrong. If you do, the argument will repeat, and the distance will grow wider and wider.
Do: Look for the deeper meaning. Look for the vulnerable feelings that are not being expressed. Try to understand your self and your partner at this deep level. When you get emotionally reactive, see if it reminds you of past wounds from your family of origin, prior relationships, or prior injuries in your current relationship. If so, express those vulnerable feelings in a transparent softer way. Take responsibility for your feelings. Consider the best way to help each other heal the wounds. First, you must help each other feel safe enough to be transparent and vulnerable.
Don’t analyze your partner or speak for your partner. Don’t flood your partner with your emotions, and don’t stuff your emotions.
Do: Share your own thoughts, emotions and desires. Reveal what’s going on inside yourself. Tell the truth in a tactful manner using “I messages”.
“I am feeling (happy, angry, sad, scared, surprised, ashamed).
I am reacting to this thing you did ________ (stated in non-blameful ways).
I notice that when I feel this emotion (hurt, angry, afraid, etc.) ______, I act this way _____________ .
“I notice that my body feels ______________ (tight shoulders, heavy feeling in chest, lump in throat, headache, stomachache)
“I wish you would _______________ . It would mean so much to me if we could _____________ .
Do: Ask your partner if your interpretations are accurate. Listen to your partner to gain a deeper understanding.
Don’t think about your own response while your partner is talking. When you do this, you are not fully present, and your partner will sense your disconnection. This naturally makes your partner feel anxious because you are not securely attached as a couple.
Do: Repeat your partner’s message with empathy to ensure you understand your spouse. You want your partner to feel felt by you; that you are on the same team. After paraphrasing, ask: “Am I understanding your thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions accurately?” Keep clarifying your understanding until your partner says, “Yes, you understand what I mean. Yes, I feel that you care about my feelings. Thank you for listening and caring.”
Don’t conclude a dialogue without discussing how you will manage the situation in the future.
Do: Make clear requests to meet your deepest needs. Keep searching for solutions until you find a solution that works for both of you. Promise to make constructive changes. State when you will start the new behavior, and all the specifics of what you will do when either of you gets triggered. Devise a system to remind yourselves. Write it on your calendar. Post it on the bathroom mirror or the refrigerator. Review the effectiveness of the solution weekly and tweak it as needed. Seek to understand your self and each other more deeply every time you talk.
Do: Have compassion for yourself and your partner. Accept yourselves where you are now. Making mistakes and learning from them is part of the growth process. If you are sincere about improving your marriage, you will use every circumstance to increase your understanding of yourself and your spouse.
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Don’t wait too long. As pain deepens from repeated injuries, tempers flash quicker and hotter. Or, you retreat into hopelessness. Don’t let it get to that point.
Do: If you are thinking about seeking professional help, that’s wise. It is easier to learn new skills when your distress is lower. Save yourself and your partner the agony of more suffering. If your stress levels are already high, you know what I mean. Get help now.
First, you must learn how to help each other feel safe enough to be authentic, transparent and vulnerable before emotional intimacy will grow.
Imagine your life is like the layers of an onion. Keep going down the layers, examining your feelings, thoughts, sensations and motivations. This increases your self-awareness and your understanding of your spouse. When you communicate from this deep level, you will be able to meet each others core needs more effectively.
Ask yourself: What is pure love? What can I do to love my partner more purely this moment? What is self-respect in this moment?
You will grow as a person, and as a couple, when you make the investment to learn how to mange conflicts well.
If you would like help with conflict management, I’m happy to help. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, and I help couples and individuals in-person in Atlanta and Blairsville, Georgia, and via telephone and videoconference.
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Falling isn’t failing, unless you don’t get up.” – Mary Pickford