Conflict Is Not a Four Letter Word-Tips to Make it Work For You
No one likes conflict but some people go to wild extremes to avoid anything that even resembles conflict.
As a result I usually see people struggling in one of two ways around this issue. Some people are explosive–often in response to dealing with a partner who is the other extreme—conflict-phobic. Fortunately, there is a better way; it is possible to handle conflict in a healthy way and then move on. Here are my tips.
#1. Try to remember that relationships are made up of countless interactions.
Sometimes people get very black and white in their thinking about conflict. I hear things like “Oh I can’t tell him how I really feel it would upset him.” If you’re in a relationship with a relatively healthy person then one negative interaction isn’t going to end things. Rather than thinking of your relationship as a fragile teacup try to think of it more as clay on a pottery wheel. If you’re working with clay and you don’t like the shape it’s taking you can rework it to make a new form. Likewise, if your disagreements turn into fights you can rework how you communicate and you may get a different result. If you don’t know the skills to do this counseling could help teach you better ways of talking and resolving issues. Relationship expert John Gottman says you should strive for a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative. A couple who yells and slams doors can be a happy and healthy couple if this ratio is happening. Notice that this doesn’t suggest a single negative interaction ever, but one to five. That allows for a lot of not so great moments together. Just be sure to build up the positives.
#2. Always be mindful of the fact that the cost of never having conflict can be very high.
I can’t tell you the number of couples I have seen who will say they’ve never had a fight but one day one partner makes the announcement that they are finished and are moving out. If a relationship ends this way it can be devastating to the partner who has been blindsided. In this scenario one person may be quietly seething for years building up resentment and by the time I see them it’s almost impossible to turn the damage around. Partners owe it to each other to take the emotional risks of being authentic and honest. I can help people manage their negative interactions better but if things get to a point of one person being emotionally checked out for years it becomes very difficult to get them to reengage. Give your partner a fair chance to respond and meet your needs and give your relationship a fighting chance by getting counseling before you’ve checked out and started packing your things to move out.
#3. Realize that there is a very important tool that you need in your relationship toolbox and that is called repair.
I see many people really struggle with not knowing how to make effective repairs and I believe this contributes greatly to conflict avoidance. If you have had conflict with your spouse it’s important to not let it linger for days and then shove it under a rug and not deal with it. Repair can take many forms but a good recipe may include an apology, even if just for having had the conflict leaving you both being upset. This usually starts the process of softening your partner which can then be followed up with some acknowledging of what your partner has said and what they felt. You can top this off with some acknowledgment about your part in the conflict and then–best of all–is making an offer to address some aspect of your partner’s upset.
Often when people start realizing that their relationship can tolerate conflict and they start working on these tips, they can start to build confidence which leaves them not feeling so paralyzed. And there is great satisfaction and closeness that can come when you realize that someone can love you and want to be with you when you’re being 100% who you are with them and aren’t hiding things out of a fear that it may cause conflict.
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