We call this strategy the 'conflict zapper.'
Anyone who is truly in love knows that all couples argue. It’s just a part of (intimate) life! No matter how exciting or compatible your relationship is, it eventually comes with disagreements about something or other.
But if you can learn how to resolve these conflicts successfully, then you will enhance the trust you have in your partner and the faith you have in your relationship.
Successfully resolving disagreements fosters a process of discovery that is critical for a healthy relationship, whereas recurring, unresolved conflicts cause damaging scars that can ultimately threaten the survival of your love relationship.
I’m sure many of you can fondly recall the early phases of your love relationship, the so-called "honeymoon phase." Here everything your partner did was cute or exciting, whether physically, intellectually or emotionally.
In many ways, he or she could do no wrong. You believed you were compatible with your new partner in EVERY way. You were meant to be!
At this point, you might have consciously or unconsciously avoided possible disagreements and basked in the glory of assumed agreement in every possible area. If a disagreement did arise, you put your best foot forward and tried to resolve it in the least amount of time possible, ensuring that you spent as much time as possible with "the one."
But as we all come to realize, the realities, challenges, and responsibilities of life eventually take over. As the time comes to attend to obligations other than absolute devotion to our new and wonderful love, each person’s individual needs will inevitably begin to filter through.
Some less obvious obligations, including your responsibility to family, financial commitments or stressors, professional requirements, and social connections now must be integrated into the love relationship. There must be room for something other than just the intimate partner.
This process often involves a shifting in priorities. Each partner may have different ideas about the relative importance or time that should be given to each obligation.
This process usually leads to each partner moving from a place of absolute confidence in their right to the partner’s undivided attention to a place where they now wonder if this remains true.
As you can imagine, these shifting priorities lead to emerging areas of conflict. If not effectively addressed, these conflicts can take their toll on the love relationship.
You might begin to notice that the frequency, duration, and intensity of conflicts can mount and that making up becomes more difficult and takes longer. While you initially found it easy to resolve conflicts and move forward, this capacity begins to diminish. You find it harder and harder to repair and heal your relationship, which can very negatively impact the success of your relationship going forward.
At this point, you may be thinking, "What are we supposed to do here? How can I protect my current or future intimate relationship from the negative consequences of arguing poorly?"
Well, that is an excellent question.
First, it is very important to learn how to diffuse and resolve conflicts early on in a relationship. In the "honeymoon phase", love is resilient. You have the strength and stamina to resolve conflicts in a healthy way.
I know what you’re thinking! "Why would I want to focus on conflicts when everything is 'perfect' right now? Why ruin things?"
I understand the possible reluctance… really. BUT, I would argue that you need to practice the tools of successful conflict resolution so that they become second nature to you by the time challenging disagreements come along.
For those of you who have already entered the "post-honeymoon phase," take heart nonetheless! It is never too late to learn and use the tools of successful and meaningful conflict resolution!
I've been working with couples for almost twenty years now and in that time I have found that there are two steps critical for positive outcomes after a conflict The first is how the couple learns to emotionally support each other before they work to resolve what is between them.
Each member must feel listened to, supported, validated, and respected in order for negotiations to be successful. If you stay friends with your partner during this process, you are far more likely to resolve your differences in a way that allows you to feel better about your partner and your relationship.
Couples that immediately race to fixing the issue or persuading their partner, find that they do so on a very shaky foundation, usually with very negative consequences to their relationship.
To help couples emotionally prepare for conflicts, I have incorporated a five-step process that can assist couples with getting on the same team before they find themselves needing to negotiate difficult disagreements. So if you want to know how to stop fighting, try this:
The Set Up
- Take some time to SEPARATELY review a few repeated conflicts from your prior intimate relationships. List those that have occurred repeatedly, independent of the partner you were with at the time. Focus on those conflicts that caused your relationship(s) to fail over time. As much as possible, be honest with yourself about your own contributions to the conflict and the ultimate ending of your relationships. You can choose more general areas of conflict, such as feeling controlled, feeling inadequate or not good enough, or more specific areas, such as money issues or not being sexually compatible.
- Share the memories you recall with your partner and invite him or her to do the same. Explore your memories together with your partner, including your memory of how each of you behaved and what your role was in these memories of conflict. Explore whether either of you are behaving similarly in your current relationship together.
- Read the steps of the following exercise together. I usually recommend that people put them on a card (laminated if you’d like) that can be placed in a wallet or taped to your mirror. Do whatever it takes to make these guidelines as easily accessible as possible. I realize they are simple to understand cognitively or intellectually, but it does take time and practice for them to become automatic. Once you’ve completed these steps of preparation, you will move to using the process below to practice resolving conflicts quickly and successfully.
The Conflict Zapper Strategy
1. Begin by focusing on a repeated conflict that occurred in your past relationships that now seems to be filtering into your current intimate relationship.
If your partner experienced similar conflicts in her or his relationships, then this could be an even more useful place to begin. You will begin by discussing this past conflict; though it is a feigned argument. Do not be surprised if tension, anger or a fear of being hurt arise.
Even though you know you are only "practicing", it is still possible to react as if the argument is actually occurring. If either you or your partner are becoming too distressed, take a break and help each other to return to a place of calm.
You may hug each other or, in some other way establish a gentle and physical connection. You might choose to go for a walk, engage in deep breathing, or discuss a particularly positive memory that you both share that is relevant to your relationship.
Of course, please remember that this is an intentional exercise that you are choosing to help you remain more connected when conflicts actually occur.
2. Decide which one of you goes first.
I would recommend that be whoever has the highest level of anxiety around this process. Now, whoever goes first needs to keep your next expressions to simple statements that you can express in a few sentences.
Please do not expand now. The partner who is listening, please only listen now. No questions, criticisms, interruptions debates, or attempts to convince your partner to change his or her perspective.
- The Conflict: "What is bothering me right now is…"
- The Feeling/Emotion: "What I am nervous about is…"/"What I fear is…"
- The Request: "What I really need from you right now is…"/"It would truly help me if you would…"
- The Emotional Response: "The reason I am feeling so afraid is that…"
- The Hopeful Response: "What I hope will happen because I am sharing this with you is…"
Once your partner has finished speaking, please take the next few minutes to repeat, to the best of your ability, exactly what you heard your partner express. This does not mean that the listener sees or fully agrees with what is being shared, only that the statements are responded to with emotional support.
This is communicated through our attempts to truly hear and repeat what your partner has expressed.
Now reverse your roles so that the partner who was listening now has the opportunity to express, using the same guidelines outlined above. The other partner now has the opportunity to work on proving the needed support.
Once each of you has had the opportunity to express your problem, feelings, needs and hopes, you will spend the next minute in mindful, quiet reflection. Look into each other’s eyes, but say nothing.
Ask yourself if you now understand better your partner’s perspective. Work on not being defensive or on taking anything that was said personally. What you heard is your partner’s reality and should be honored and validated, even if you do not agree with the perspective.
4. Take some time to calmly and lovingly offer any thoughts or behaviors that might alleviate some of your partner’s distress.
This may be soothing words of comfort or a partial solution to what is needed. The key is that these gestures must be sincerely or authentically offered. Of course, your partner would then do the same for you.
Each of you needs to work to accept each other’s gestures with openness and without finding fault or arguing. This might be more difficult than you realize, but it is a very needed and meaningful part of this exercise.
Once you are finished, please do not continue to discuss the issues. Do not negotiate or try to bring the conflict to a solution. Just let it rest for the time being.
Instead, do something that actually reminds you of why you are still in love with each other. Nourish the good connection you have instead of choosing to accidentally feed conflict and negative feelings. Then, when you are feeling more connected, calmer and safer with each other, return to the issue for further resolution.
5. Practice, practice, practice!
Now, you can begin using this exercise to work through other conflicts that repeatedly occurred in your past relationships, as well as those that are filtering through into your current relationship. You want to practice this exercise so that it becomes second nature to you, a tool that you will now be able to use during times of distress.
Please remember that if either of you becomes too upset during the exercise, it may be important to stop for now. You may need to share with each other the feelings or memories that are being triggered and then work to calm and sooth each other before continuing with the exercise.
By identifying and working through conflict patterns in previous relationships, and potential areas of early conflict in your current relationship, you will remain more positive and hope filled.
Conflicts will be easier to neutralize and resolve before becoming bigger, more problematic issues. You will be able to protect your relationship against later significant damage.
With time, this exercise can be used beyond your intimate relationships and can serve as a guide to more comforting and productive interactions in other areas of your life.
This article was originally published at drkristinschaeferschiumo.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.