You love and respect your significant other, no question. This person is your best friend. The first one you call when you have good news. The yin to your yang. But sometimes you feel like you’re engaging in a constant battle of wills, in which neither of you ever wins. And that can be frustrating, dejecting, and completely exhausting. Arguments are inevitable, so take to heart these conflict resolution tips to help you fight fair and get through dustups — and as a result, become a stronger, happier couple.
Try to get to the heart of the problem.
A lack of communications skills ranks high on the list of most significant causes of conflict in a relationship, according to Rachel Wright, a psychotherapist and therapeutic relationship coach, who co-founded the Wright Wellness Center with her husband, Kyle. “The fact that our society doesn’t teach us how to communicate in a healthy and effective way is really the biggest issue in modern relationships,” she says. “So, when something as sensitive as sex, money, or politics comes up, it’s almost impossible to navigate without saying something silly.”
Couples must also recognize that conflict occurs when needs conflict, explains Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and marriage therapist in Irvine, California. And how much conflict there is depends on whose needs are high or low. For example, if one of you has a low need for something, and the other has a high need for something, that’s a medium degree of conflict that can be easily resolved if the person who has a low need agrees to give the other person what he or she wants.
Tension is at its highest in a high/high scenario, which can only be resolved when each partner cares enough about the other and the relationship to forgo his or her high need. “Perhaps you give up what you want — in this situation — because it is important to your partner,” says Sultanoff. “Giving up one’s desires is fine as long as it does not become a way of being in the relationship. Healthy relationships are filled with each person giving and receiving.”
Use ‘I statements’ to express hurt feelings.
Wright explains that ‘I statements’ are meant to reveal your emotions. Note the difference between “I feel like you’re judging me” versus “I feel hurt when you say that about me,” she says. “The first is almost an accusation while the second is talking about your actual feelings.”
Wright’s husband Kyle recalls a time when this strategy helped de-escalate one of their recent conflicts: “When [Rachel and I] were in the middle of moving from Denver to California, we got into a ridiculous fight one morning… over where we were going to get breakfast and coffee,” he says. “The fight escalated while I was shoving our suitcases into the car frustration-style and Rachel was pouting in the hotel lobby. At this point, we had totally moved on from what we were originally fighting about and were now more upset at each other for how we were communicating. We were jerks to each other.”
Finally, says Kyle: “I go over to Rachel and ask, ‘Are you gonna get in the car?’ to which she responds by flipping me off right there in the lobby. So, I turned around, walked away, and loudly said ‘ENJOY WALKING TO CALIFORNIA’ and exited the building. Not my finest moment.”
After a brief cooling off period — and having that much-needed cup of coffee — the couple put their relationship training into action. “We started with ‘I statements’ about how we felt before and during the argument to gain an understanding of each other’s experience,” Kyle continues. “By sharing what we perceived during the fight, we were able to identify what had happened and were able to talk it out… and begin apologizing and resolving what we had said to each other in the heat of the moment.”
Avoid using ‘war words’ and making judgments.
Conflict often results in judgment and “war words,” which Sultanoff describes as absolutes like “always” and “never.” For example: “You always leave dirty dishes in the sink” and “You never tell me when you’re going to be late.”
Just as harmful are judgments (“You’re being inconsiderate, insensitive, etc.”), including those that stem from a belief that your partner should do something your way, says Sultanoff. For instance: “I would not treat you like that” (and, therefore, you should not treat me like that) or “I would not do that” (assuming then, that you should not do that either).
Remember that you aren’t the same person as your S.O. with the same points of view, and that’s okay. “Maintain your perspective of love, respect, acceptance, and non-judgment,” says Sultanoff.
Set a hard rule against name-calling.
If you want to fight fair, this is a biggie. But as most everyone knows (and as noted in Kyle’s description of his conflict with his wife), avoiding personal attacks in the middle of a fight can be difficult to do when tempers are flaring. This is often when the expletives start flying. However, it’s essential to set a boundary against name-calling early in your relationship.
“Once mean words start getting tossed around, that conversation is heading nowhere fast,” says Wright. “We have a hard and fast rule both in our home and in our practice that there is no name-calling allowed, ever, between two people.”
Take a time-out to let yourself cool off.
“Have you ever seen stars or been so overwhelmed with emotions that it’s hard to listen or form sentences? That’s flooding,” explains Wright. “Once you’re flooded, it’s almost impossible to continue a helpful conversation. So, instead of trying — and most likely failing — take a time-out.”
This may mean going for a walk around the block, taking a short drive (as long as you’re not too distraught), or simply walking into the next room and shutting the door for a bit. Taking that time to be alone with your thoughts will help you return to the situation with a clearer head.
A relationship is not about winning or losing, but cooler heads will prevail.