Joy and pain are perhaps the opposite sides of the same emotional coin.
I am reminded of the song by Frankie Beverly & Maze, equating these emotions to the weather, much like it has been over the past few days: glorious sunshine in the crisp winter air followed by unexpected thunderous rain.
I resonate with the words of this song. Somehow, it normalises experiences that we all have. Conflict, difficulties and arguments happen in relationships. They do, just like the ups and downs of the weather. Our partners are different from us, and our differences will challenge us occasionally.
Learning to deal with conflict is a vital relationship tool, whether with your partner, friend, work colleague or family member.
Conflict and Fairy Tales
I’ve just watched Pixar’s film Up yet again. It’s a story of loss, grief, separation, discovery, transition and connection. But the central premise is love. It’s the love story of childhood sweethearts who grow old together, separated only by death. Somehow, I can’t imagine Mr & Mrs Fredricksen ever having any conflict. They didn’t seem to need to know the steps to handle conflict.
And actually, a part of me feels something is missing, flat somehow.
Could avoiding conflict mean disregarding essential parts of your partner’s story, personality, vitality and life energy? In her book How Loving Relationships Work, Anne Geraghty describes how loving what is different is hard. Still, the rewards for the relationship are much more satisfying, exciting, demanding and creative.
Conflict is usually symbolic of something more profound. When you begin to be curious about what the rows in your relationship are bringing to your attention, this can lead to an exploration of what the relationship needs to deepen.
But isn’t conflict always a bad thing?
No. Avoiding conflict can create more problems further down the line.
You need to attend to and contain the embers, not dampen them. Dampening them means you suppress the emotion which lies beneath the conflict. You may feel the chill from withdrawing or bottling up feelings.
Likewise, if you ignore the embers and the emerging flames take on a life of their own, you may experience this as inappropriate angry outbursts or aggressive behaviour.
Knowing the steps to handle conflict brings safety and vibrancy to a relationship.
So, how do you effectively manage conflict in a relationship?
If a healthy conflict is beneficial, how can you manage it to help you build more stable relationships and allow those significant others in your life to see more of the authentic you and them?
Here are 12 steps to help you handle conflict in your relationship:
- Choose your time. Raise the issue at a time that’s good for you both. There’s no point talking to the other person if they can’t listen, e.g., as soon as they’ve walked through the door from work or are exhausted. If it’s not the right time, set a time and stick to it.
- Start the discussion amicably. When you are calm, you are less likely to be distracted.
- Only raise one issue at a time, stay on track and don’t bring up anything else.
- When your partner is speaking, pay full attention. Listening does not just involve the use of our ears. Use your eyes to notice body language and gestures without making interpretations.
- Don’t interrupt or second guess what your partner is going to say.
- Paraphrase what your partner has told you. You don’t have to repeat what is said verbatim. You’re simply checking out that what you’ve heard is accurate.
- Ask open-ended questions for clarification. This allows your partner to go deeper into their side of the issue, e.g. ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ questions are good, but avoid those beginning with ‘why’.
- Try to understand your partner’s reactions, validate them, and respond empathetically. This helps to build more connections. You might say, ‘I imagine you feel [insert your words]. Is that how you’re feeling?’
- Once your partner has finished, it’s your turn.
- Try to use ‘I’ statements, as this shows you’re taking responsibility for your emotions instead of blaming your partner.
- Words matter. They can hurt. Take responsibility for your choice of words.
- Don’t get hooked on who’s right and who’s wrong. Usually, you are both right and an understanding that includes both positions is needed.
Help’s at Hand
If you’re finding it difficult not to interrupt, use a Talking Stick. You can use any safe object for this. The person speaking holds the object whilst they are saying. When they have finished, they hand the thing to the listener, their signal to communicate. Use the format above to structure the conversation. The object passes between you until the conversation ends.
These steps do work but require practice. They might not be easy to do in the heat of the moment as it can be challenging to put aside your reactions whilst listening, reflecting, asking questions and practising being empathic. Be kind to yourself. Remember, you will bring very different childhood experiences about managing conflict to your relationship.
Keep practising. Future conflicts won’t disappear, but perhaps they will be easier to manage.
If you are stuck on a particular issue, or one of you doesn’t feel safe enough to talk about what’s difficult, counselling may help.
Over To You
How are you with conflict in your relationships? Do you find yourself saying nothing to keep things peaceful in your relationship? If you want to explore your relationship with conflict, how this might be limiting your connections, and the steps to handle conflict better, get in touch and book a clarity session. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.
P.S. PASS IT ON
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© Sandra Harewood 2023
Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialise in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.