Most of us dislike conflict. Very few people were raised with healthy role models for dealing with differences. But while conflict may appear to be a destructive force in relationships, it can actually help us achieve lasting love. Author Kate McNulty, LCSW writes “Differences can be a source of interest and fresh energy rather than cause us to dig in our heels and defend our positions.”
You will disagree, that’s a given. But it’s not arguing with your partner that’s the problem, it’s how your differences are resolved. Love means risking occasionally getting your feelings hurt because it’s the price you pay for intimacy. In all intimate relationships, conflicting needs for closeness and space exist. When issues come up with either of these needs, it’s essential that you discuss them with your partner and find creative ways to compromise.
Taking the time to resolve conflicts with your partner in a healthy way is hard work – but the payoff is tremendous. It’s essential that you accept differences rather than define your relationship problems in terms of your partner’s character flaws, according to Deborah Hecker, Ph.D. She writes, “Typically I define couples’ problems in terms of differences between them rather than the defects in either partner. A focus on defectiveness leads to blame and accusations on the one hand and defensiveness on the other. Effective solutions are not likely to result.”
Every relationship has its ups and downs, and conflict goes with the territory. Yet you might avoid conflict because it may have signified the end of your parents’ marriage or led to bitter disputes. Marriage counselor, Michele Weiner Davis explains that avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. She posits that bottling up negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t give your partner a chance to change their behavior. On the other hand, Weiner cautions that one of the secrets of a good marriage or romantic relationship is learning to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and important ones.
Many of the women I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce identified feelings of vulnerability when it came to dealing with facing differences that arise between them and their partner. They might walk on eggshells because they grew up in families where healthy ways to resolve conflicts were not displayed. Sarah, age 28, was raised in a family where her parents managed conflicts poorly and experienced a bitter divorce. She strives to use a problem-solving approach with her husband Jason and to learn to manage their differences more effectively.
According to relationship expert Dr. Patricia Love, it’s important to stop keeping score and to try not to win every argument, even when you’re in the right. Instead, Love says, “think of winning an unofficial contest I like to call ‘Who’s the Bigger Person?’ Resolving Conflicts is about who wants to grow the most and what’s best for your relationship.’” In the beginning of a relationship, couples tend to focus more on their similarities. Yet after awhile, negative projections tend to surface and your partner may remind you of someone from your past. This could explain why some couples who seemed so compatible when they first got together, have more conflicts as time goes by.
Hilary, age 34, explains how identifying her part in communication breakdowns with her husband, Dan, helped save her marriage. “In the past, I used to focus on what Dan was doing wrong until a good friend reminded me that I may want to try harder to communicate my feelings to him without blaming him.” Hilary realized that she hadn’t learned healthy ways of resolving conflicts from her parents who had loud, abusive arguments in front of her and her two younger siblings.
Like all smart women, Hilary realizes that every relationship goes through rough patches and that it takes two people to contribute to the difficulties. Since she enjoys being married overall, Hilary decided to focus more on Dan’s positive qualities – such as being a great father – rather than negative ones. “That’s when I noticed that I had a problem communicating. I expected Dan to know what I wanted without me telling him what I needed. When he failed, I’d punish him with the silent treatment, or blow up. When I let go of my efforts to fix him, and started working on fixing myself, things began to get better,” she says.
Six ways to stop the “blame game” and resolve conflicts in a healthy way:
• Take a risk and talk about hurt feelings – especially if it’s an important issue. Opening up to our partner can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, but it is the most important ingredient of a trusting, intimate relationship.
• Avoid building a case against your partner and don’t make lists of their flaws.
• Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement.
• Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements that tend to come across as blameful. For instance, saying “I felt hurt when you bought me that gift” will work better than “You never buy me thoughtful gifts.”
• Don’t make threats or issue ultimatums. Avoid saying things you’ll regret later.
• Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded. This will give you time to calm down and collect your thoughts. Sometimes it’s best to “drop it” in order to stop the “blame game.”
It may seem obvious to some, but not all, that the best relationships are ones born out of trust and vulnerability. Each partner approaches one another as an equal. The relationship does not drain its participants; instead it nourishes. Differences between partners are complementary. These differences are advantageous and desirable and do not create a hindrance to the relationship; instead they contribute to its growth. In a healthy relationship, partners draw out untapped possibilities in one another.
In sum, be sure to pay close attention to your reactions the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner. Take a look at the part you play. Keep in mind Dr. John Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions – a five-to-one ratio. For every negative interaction in a relationship, you need five positive ones. Since we all have flaws, focus on not getting defensive because that will only push him or her away. The next time you feel upset at your partner, examine your own thoughts and responses – before you point out their faults.
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