Conflict is inevitable. It doesn't have to push you apart. If used well, it can bring you closer.
THE TRUTH ABOUT CONFLICT
Conflict is inevitable. All couples have conflict. But it’s how you handle that conflict that defines the quality of your relationship. The decision to use conflict creatively to enhance your relationship and bring you closer is a conscious choice. Disagreements are a viable and healthy part of relationships. Working through a conflict can lead couples to a valuable opportunity to achieve deeper understanding of themselves and each other, drawing them closer together rather than pushing them farther apart.
VIVA LA DIFFERENCE
Couples are attracted by both their similarities and differences. Many of the differences are seen as assets as there is hope that one’s good qualities will pass on to the other. However, over time, some of the differences become liabilities and can cause irritation or conflict.
Dialogue: Identify ways you and your partner are different. Which differences are assets? Which differences are liabilities? How can you build on the assets and keep irritating differences from becoming major conflict issues?
WHAT ABOUT ANGER?
It’s the anger generated in conflict that makes conflict hard to manage. Anger is a normal human response. When a person feels threatened, frustrated or attacked the body triggers a defensive reaction. Anger is powerful. It’s a source of energy, like gasoline, that is explosive and destructive if mishandled. However, the same energy properly managed has enormous potential for constructive uses, such as make-up sex! How we behave when angry is largely learned through years of observation and experiences with family, friends, television and other life experiences.
Dialogue: How was anger expressed in your home growing up? How was anger resolved? How do you feel when your partner gets angry with you? Why do you think you feel this way? What can you learn about each other’s past that can help minimize conflict in the future?
ANGER IS A SECONDARY EMOTION
We must look beyond the “smoke screen” of anger and recognize deeper feelings. Anger results when our sense of security is threatened, our self-esteem damaged and our feelings hurt. Often anger is based on misinterpretation of words or actions. After anger has subsided, carefully examine the anger-producing situation in an atmosphere of openness and honesty.
Dialogue: What happened just before the incident? What triggered the anger? What else was I feeling (guilt, fatigue, overwhelmed, insecure)? What did I want or hope my partner would say or do? How can we identify and communicate our primary feelings to each other in order to keep conflict from escalating?
BREAKING OLD PATTERNS
The two most common (and destructive) ways of dealing with anger are to suppress (swallow it) or vent (spew it). Suppressing anger results in silence, sulking, withdrawing. Venting results in yelling, criticizing, blaming. Neither keeping it all in nor letting it all out brings a couple closer. We can learn to break old patterns and develop more effective ways to handle anger.
Dialogue: Do you tend to vent or suppress? Does your partner tend to vent or suppress? What behaviors do you observe? What feelings do you experience? What do we want to change in our behavior to express anger more appropriately and minimize conflict?
TAKING CARE OF LITTLE HURTS
A pinch is a little hurt or irritation – it may be your partner’s tone of voice, a look, a task left undone. A pinch in and of itself is of little importance. But, add them all up, day after day, week after week and they can result in resentment, conflict and drifting apart. According to John Gottman, it takes five affirmations to negate one pinch. A pinch is no small matter! If you feel a pinch, simply say “ouch!” and then explain “I felt___when___” and allow your partner to clarify his or her intentions.
Dialogue: Describe a situation where you felt pinched. What was your primary emotion? How do we want to handle pinches in the future? Since it takes five affirmations to negate a pinch, give your partner five affirmations right now.
The first step in dealing with conflict is to make decisions when you’re NOT angry about how you’re going to act when you ARE angry. (Sarah Catron)
Guidelines for processing our anger:
• Acknowledge anger – open up about your feelings using good communication skills.
• Look behind the anger – look below the surface to identify the primary cause.
• Do not attack – avoid the words “always” and “never” – agree not to blame, yell, criticize, use sarcasm, belittle, name call, bring up the past, judge, physically assault.
• Accept responsibility for clearing it up – anger in one partner affects the total relationship. Regardless of where the anger originates, both have equal responsibility for clearing it up.
• Take a time out – anger cannot be processed until both partners have cooled down. It’s impossible to process anger in the heat of anger.
Dialogue: On a scale of 1 (never follow the guidelines) to 5 (always follow the guidelines) rate how you personally process anger in your relationship. What things do you do as an individual and as a couple that are positive in the way you handle conflict? What things do you do as an individual and as a couple that are negative in the way you handle conflict? What personal guidelines will you establish together about processing anger?
Conflict in a relationship is normal and inevitable. The way we process conflict and anger can lead to greater intimacy. It’s important to identify our patterns for dealing with conflict and to develop a game plan for dealing with it more effectively and lovingly.
The Better Marriages Fiesta, July 7-10 in Albuquerque, New Mexico provides workshops and keynotes on dealing with conflict. The in-depth workbook How to Use Conflict to Bring You Closer is available in our online bookstore.
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This article was originally published at Better Marriages . Reprinted with permission from the author.