June 17

7 Essential Tips for Constructive Relationship Conflict



Have you ever considered hitting your partner with a bat?

In 1969, George Bach published The Intimate Enemy.

In it, he wrote that relationship breakdown was caused by couples not discussing their resentments. He encouraged couples to "let it all out."

He gave couples foam rubber bats. Partners were encouraged to voice what they disliked about the other person, hitting them with the bat afterwards.

One partner might say, "I resent you for spending on a log cabin we never use," followed by a whack.

Then the other partner might say, "I resent you for never having sex with me," accompanied with a whack.

It turns out that this method only made couples feel more resentful toward one another. "Letting it all out" is not the solution.

So let’s switch gears for a moment…

Say you and your partner are arguing a lot.

Maybe sometimes you do let it all out, while other times you bite your tongue and keep your anger to yourself.

Neither approach seems to work.

On the one hand, when you discuss your problems, they end up escalating. On the other hand, when you keep them bottled up, you seethe and end up exploding at minor incidents.

But what if you could reframe your approach to conflicts?

What if you could find a mid-way path between keeping mum and letting it all out?

If you find this middle ground, you'll be able to get the best of both worlds — constructive conflict.

You'll be able to discuss your differences without the conversation spiralling out of control.

You'll be able to get solutions that work for both of you.

In short, you'll be able to have a great relationship.

A man and woman shouting each other

1) Know Your Fundamental Attribution Error

During conflicts, you probably see your partner as different from you. You see their errors and flaws, but overlook your own —while at the same time believing negative things about them.

The tendency to be more forgiving of yourself is called the fundamental attribution error, and it's a bias all humans have.

It works like this:

Because you know why you do the things you do, you tend to view yourself with understanding and sympathy. But because you only see what others do and not their reasons for it, you think their actions always tell you something about their personality.

If you're speeding, for example, you know the reason why. You're late for your mother's birthday party and know that if you're not there on time, you'll miss the theatre booking. But when you see someone else speeding, they're idiots.

They should know better.

Because you don't know their reasons, you assume they must be speeding out of disregard for others’ safety.

Now I'm not recommending speeding – under any circumstance. I'm highlighting that you need to be aware of this bias in the heat of an argument.

To guard against the fundamental attribution error, when you think about your partner's personality in a negative manner, remind yourself that you don't know why they're doing what they're doing.

Before judging, ask questions to find out more.

2) Start Gently

A man and woman arguing gently

You need to raise a touchy subject in your relationship every so often. That's normal.

But how do you go about it?

Do you start harshly reminding your partner of their flaws, calling them names, and batting down every suggestion made? Or do you start gently?

Do you stick to a specific situation or behaviour you don't like and how it makes you feel? Or do you bring up a long list of past complaints?

How you start a conversation will impact how it proceeds.

Start harshly, and the talk will go nowhere. Start gently, and there's a high chance you'll get the response you need.

The best conversation starters have four parts:

1) "I share some responsibility for this…" – instead of pointing your finger at your partner, you point your finger at yourself.

2) "Here's how I feel…." – you take responsibility for your feelings.

3) “About a specific situation...” – you stick to the actual behaviour you don't like rather than attack your partner's personality. You give a concrete example.

4) “Here's what I need… “ – you express a positive need, not what you don't need.

Your soft conversation starters don't have to be very diplomatic to be effective. But they must avoid criticism and looking down on your partner.

You might say something like this: "Hey, I know I can be a slob sometimes myself, but I'm furious that you walked by the laundry basket last night. You didn’t stop to fold any sheets and I didn't like having to fold them all myself."

Or you could try: "I know I don't always feel like going myself, but I feel strongly that we need to go to church together more often. This is important to me. When we don't go, I feel guilty."

These are soft starters because you're making a direct complaint rather than criticising and accusing.

3) Stop if You're Flooded

Nearly all heterosexual marriages have one thing in common:

Whether the relationship is happy or unhappy, the woman brings up touchy subjects.

Men are more likely to distance themselves from hard-to-face concerns.

Men tend to experience emotional flooding easily. This is because men’s bodies are more reactive to emotional stress than women's. Because of this, they're inclined to avoid confrontation.

But this only makes the situation worse.

Men must learn to recognise when they’re about to overflow emotionally. You can't have a constructive conflict conversation if you can't manage your physiological flooding.

Flooding causes damage in two different ways.

One way is by leading you to attack your partner. In the heat of the moment, you'll say words you regret – causing your partner to get defensive.

The second way is by causing you to withdraw, called stonewalling. When you stonewall, your emotions become so overwhelming you shut down and try to escape the conflict. But since you don't want to back down and admit defeat, you withdraw in a manner that shows your partner you're not happy with them.

For example, slamming the door and leaving the room, or flicking through your phone while studiously ignoring your partner.

These are just some of the ways you might stonewall.

If flooding is an issue for you, try to find a way to soothe yourself.

One method is to take a 20-to-30-minute break. During that time, do things that help you relax, like taking a walk or listening to your favourite music. Don't stew on the argument.

Think positive thoughts about your partner and come back in the frame of mind to listen and discuss.

4) Postpone Persuasion

Asking the right questions, empathising, and making someone feel understood are skills that can dramatically increase intimacy in any relationship.

Start by listening to your partner. If you ask questions and show you understand their perspective, even if you disagree with it, they'll be motivated to do the same to you.

Think of it like this:

As soon as your partner starts to speak about a complex topic, your mind starts to formulate a response. And because the reaction grabs so much of your attention, you miss half of what your partner’s saying.

If you respond first, without seeking further clarification, you'll be responding to an idea you've only half understood.

That's why you shouldn't jump into early solutions or immediately try to get your partner to compromise.

Instead, you need to allow time for both of you to state your positions and perspectives.

It's only when both you and your partner feel understood by each other that you can begin to work together to find a compromise.

To get you in the mood to listen during a hard-to-face discussion, it's best to prepare yourself.

Remember, when you're listening, it's not about you or your agenda. It's not about being interesting but genuinely interested in another person.

You need to tune into your partner's world. You need to hear your partner's pain – even if you disagree with the details.

Your job as a listener is to be "present" with your partner.

Don't minimise your partner's feelings.

Don't take responsibility for your partner's feelings.

Don't try to make your partner feel better.

Don't try to cheer your partner up.

Just tune in to how your partner is feeling.

5. Ask for What You Want

A man asking to a woman what is his fault

Work on being a good speaker as well as a good listener.

When you're speaking, don't argue for or try to persuade your partner of your point of view. Instead, just explain how you see things.

Tell your partner your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about your position on this issue.

No blaming, criticism, or contempt.

Try to avoid statements that start with "you", such as "you are…" or "you did…." You'll need to use the word "you" sometimes, but the idea is to minimise its use and replace it with "I" statements.

If you're always using the word "you", the other person can feel accused. If you use the word "I", you take ownership of your feelings.

Compare —

"You never help me out with the kids."

With —

"Yesterday, I'd been busy all day with the kids and I felt tired. When you came home and went straight to the study to do your own thing, I felt angry and disappointed."

In the second statement, the word "you" appears later and is preceded by several "I's."

Remember, as a speaker, it's your responsibility to express your needs clearly. The trap most people fall into is only saying how they want to feel: "I want to feel more loved."

The problem is that it gives your partner no clue how to help you feel that way.

A better way to ask for more love is, "I need a romantic date night once a week and an overnight at a bed and breakfast every two months." Be as specific as you can.

6. Allow Influence

When a conflict arises, accepting your partner's influence is the hardest thing to do.

Giving ground seems like backing down and admitting defeat in the heat of the moment.

But sometimes, you need to yield to win.

Imagine driving through a busy city. You can encounter frustrating bottlenecks and unexpected barricades that block your rightful passage.

You can take one of two approaches to these impossible situations.

One is to stop, become righteously indignant, and insist that the offending obstacle move.

The other is to drive around it.

The first approach will earn you a heart attack.

The second approach – yielding to win – will get you home.

Are there any areas in your relationship where if you gave a little ground (yielding) the relationship would improve overall (winning)?

If you're a man who always leaves the toilet seat up, riling your partner, can you remember to put it down? If you're a woman who's always late, can you remember to set off on time?

Accepting influence is an attitude, but it's also a skill you can improve if you pay attention to how you relate to your partner.

The key is to be willing to compromise.

You do this by searching through your partner's request for something you can agree to.

You may not agree to all of their requests, but can you agree to a part of it? Can you yield a little?

7. Give Up on the Truth

A couple looks happy in their relationship

What colour is the wall in your living room? To one person, it might be white; to another, it might be cream or beige.

Which person is right?

When you discuss a subject with your partner, accept that most times there are two points of view, and both are valid.

If you believe your partner said they'd be home to help you prepare dinner and they say they didn't, who is right?

Memory is fallible. Can you say your memory is perfect?

Instead, all you can do is speak from your experience. You might say, "I remember you saying you'd be home to help me prepare for my mother visiting. And your partner might respond, "I don't remember saying that."

That's all either of you can say.

You can only speak of your experience.

This means that rather than fighting to prove that your truth is correct, you can focus on understanding what your partner saw and heard. You may have experienced the situation differently, but that doesn't mean that your partner's experiences and memories are incorrect or invalid.

You need to be careful not to be gaslighted, i.e. deliberately misled. However, your different experiences most likely come down to seeing and interpreting events from unique perspectives, having different memories of, and various emotional responses to, a situation.

Constructive Relationship Conflict

Rather than pick up foam bats and 'let it all out,' you can follow some guidelines for constructive relationship conflict.

Simply bringing up your grievances with your partner will not result in a healthy relationship.

Instead, you need a few new skills to help facilitate constructive conflict.

Look through the tips in this post. Do they all make sense? Can you start to implement them?

Having differences in a relationship is normal. You can't make conflict and disagreement go away.

But you can learn to make your conflicts more bearable and valuable.

If you can master the tips in this post, then your conflicts and relationship are bound to improve.

You no longer need to dread raising differences. You can have confidence that your position on an issue will be acknowledged and validated.

Conflict will get resolved constructively.

Peace will reign.

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