Many people were taught to avoid conflict at all cost, especially with those they love and cherish. They cling to the mistaken notion that problems and disagreements are always destructive. They keep their mouths shut and suffer in silence. Withholding their true feelings drains passion and soon they are less interested in talking, having sex, or doing much of anything with the other.
The volcano eventually erupts and now they are fighting with fury, highlighting every perceived flaw and hurling insults with such contempt that heads spin. Withdrawal leads to fighting and fighting leads to withdrawal. The cycle continues and the wall between them grows higher and thicker.
But conflict can actually be an opportunity for increased intimacy. It is often a signal that one or both partners are feeling insecure because a need, hope, or dream is not being met in the relationship. Learning effective strategies for coping with conflict can help you feel more relaxed and safe, and serve as a tool for learning more about yourself and your partner. Based on the current relationship research, here are three strategies I recommend.
1. Stop hoping that problems will disappear and instead accept their inevitable return.
Psychologist Dan Wile reminds us that "There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will be choosing, along with that person, a particular set of irresolvable problems that you'll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or even fifty years."
I know. Sounds depressing. The point is that after an argument many people fantasize that life would be easier if they were with someone else. Yet breaking up and starting a new relationship usually means just exchanging the old set of problems for a new set. Most couples have a handful of perpetual problems - issues that occur again and again despite valiant efforts to find solutions.
It's human nature to want to fix things, but some differences persist. Sometimes the goal should be conflict "regulation" rather than conflict "resolution." You may not be able to prevent the problem from occurring again, but you can reduce its intensity. You can also use it as a clue to unexpressed emotions in the relationship. Sometimes "you never help with the laundry" really means "I feel disconnected and lonely."
2. Talk about problems when they are not happening instead of just when they are.
This may seem counterintuitive because the last thing you want to do is start a fight when things are going well. But during a fight people become flooded with emotions. Adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol are released into the bloodstream and the one you love is perceived as enemy number one and a threat to safety. Thinking becomes chemically distorted. Fears become physiologically exaggerated. The hypothalamus fires a sequence of nerve cells and the rational mind gets bypassed. Old resentments resurface. You overreact to every comment and enter attack and destroy mode. You are operating from fear rather than from love.
Instead, try starting a conversation about the problem when things are more calm and friendly. Open the conversation with soft and conciliatory language rather than words that are accusatory. Some of the classic communication rules apply here: focus on "I" rather than "you" statements; minimize interrupting; avoid absolutes such as "always' and "never;" summarize and paraphrase what you are hearing (especially feelings); and keep the conversation focused on one topic at a time. While such an approach does not guarantee a successful conversation, it does increase the odds since defenses are generally lower and the heart is more open to understanding the other's perspective.
3. Notice when the problem is not a problem and catch your partner getting it right.
Although it can seem like your partner "never" does _______ (insert something you like), or "always" does _______ (insert something you don't like), such is rarely the case. It is more likely that your partner does do the things you appreciate, at least on occasion, but that you have become stuck in your own resentment and don't notice.
Try this exercise for one week: First, think of the thing that irritates you most about your partner (something you believe they do or don't do). Second, try to catch your partner getting it right (notice the moments when your partner behaves in the way you desire). Finally, express your gratitude and name for your partner the behavior that you appreciate.
For example, let's say that one of your frequent complaints is feeling ignored. For one week, try noticing the times when your partner is attentive (even if they are inattentive at other times). Then, express what you notice by saying something like "The way you are holding eye contact with me right now feels good. I feel really heard and understood."
Positive acknowledgements tend to result in more of the behavior that you seek. Even if your partner doesn't change, your view of them probably will and a growing body of research concludes that the mutual expression of appreciation is common practice within healthy and resilient love relationships.
I hope these three strategies help you think and talk about your relationship problems in a more effective way. Good luck!