This guest article from Psych Central was written by Margarita Tartakovsy, M.S.
Conflict gets a bad rap. We automatically assume that conflict will collapse a relationship. Some of us avoid conflict like the plague, thinking that if we close our eyes to a potential clash, it doesn’t exist.
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“Engaging in conflict isn’t going to end the relationship, it’s avoiding the conflict [that might],” according to Michael Batshaw, LCSW, a New York City-based psychologist who specializes in couples and author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged.
He said that, “No problem is too small to acknowledge in a relationship.” Michigan relationship expert Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, agreed, and said, “sweat the small stuff.” Her almost 24 years of research with the same couples found that if you don’t address the small issues in your relationship, they just evolve into a bigger problem that’s then “really hard to unpack.”
But how do you make sure that conflict doesn’t ruin your relationship and instead helps it grow? The good news is that “most fighting comes from skill deficits,” according to Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of the book The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage.
So you can learn to approach conflict in a constructive and effective way. Below are tips to help you do just that.
But just remember that these are general guidelines. “Couples relationships—as all human relationships—are complex and operate at multiple levels with potentially dozens of choice points at any given moment in time,” noted Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy.
Work on your listening skills. Communication is key to resolving conflict. The bedrock of good communication? Fully listening to your partner without building a case in your head of how your partner is wrong, said Batshaw, also author of the forthcoming Things You Need to Know Before Getting Married: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage.
Couples who are stuck in conflict are unable to empathize with their partner, he said. For tips, see our article on active listening and effective speaking.
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Participate in shared problem solving. Consider the concerns behind your perspective. Heitler helps her clients lay out their concerns, so they can then brainstorm solutions together, instead of each partner arguing his or her point.
For instance, one couple kept fighting about parking: He didn’t want his wife to park in the parking garage when running her errands downtown; she thought this was ridiculous because a parking garage was sometimes her only option to find a space. So they looked deeper into their concerns, said Heitler, who co-created an online program called Power of Two, which helps couples build successful relationships and problem-solve effectively.