Managing Conflict

Managing Conflict

Conflict is an inevitable factor in every relationship. The more time we spend with a person the more likely we are to have disagreements. While conflict has a certain negative 'stigma' attached to it, it is not actually a bad thing. In fact, conflict which is dealt with in a healthy manner can help our relationships grow to higher levels. We may find ourselves with a deeper understanding of the other person and/or of ourselves, following conflict. In some ways conflict defines our boundaries. We get to know where we stand in our relationships and where our partner stands. 

One of the biggest problems when conflict arises is that most of us have a tendency either to go on the attack or to try to avoid conflict, neither of which works well. If we are inclined to attack, we often over react and blow things out of proportion, and are likely to name call and perhaps say things with some malice. The usual response is then for the partner to defend themselves, and possibly counter attack, rather than address the actual issue. Problems are rarely sorted out when a slinging match of insults occurs or an ‘attack/defend’ pattern takes place. 

If, on the other hand, rather than face a disagreement head on, we suppress our anger and don’t even voice our discontent, feelings of resentment are likely to intensify. The things that are unsaid, but lying below the surface, are often brought up out of context, showing themselves in unhelpful ways, such as making barbed comments about other events. 

So, how can we deal with conflict, being honest with our partners and ourselves, but without becoming nasty, escalating the argument and damaging one another? 

The first step is to set boundaries about conflict - have a discussion together about how you as a couple want to deal with your conflicts and come to an agreement on some respectful ground rules – such as the ideas listed below.

How can I manage conflict?

  • Pick a reasonable time to raise the issue – Not when stressed or hungry; not in front of other people, not just before a special occasion; not as soon as one walks in the door or is about to go out; not late at night (some couples use a ‘not after 10.00 o’clock” rule.) Respecting your partner’s space. Giving yourself time to reflect, gain perspective and then raise the issue with a clear head is often very useful.
  • Tell your partner that you want to bring up an issue to discuss and ask them if now is a reasonable time. If not, arrange another time not too far off, that would be suitable for both of you.
  • Express the issue in fairly specific terms and include how it affects you (rather than in blaming language). Use ‘I statements’ to describe your experience Eg “I feel resentful when you come home from work late as it means I have to deal with all homework, feeding and bathing of the kids by myself. It is really hard to juggle it all, especially because everyone is getting tired and cranky at the end of the day.” Blaming language would be something like: “ You are so selfish coming home late, leaving me to do everything – typical!”
  • Stick to one issue at a time – deal ONLY with the issue raised. This is vital. Other issues that come to mind, can be raised at another time. Otherwise we get diverted onto discussions about other issues and the original issue gets lost, is not addressed. and nothing gets resolved.
  • Listen and respond calmly. Make sure each partner gets the chance to give their own perspective, uninterrupted.. Don't just try and drown each other out. Focus just as much on getting a really good understanding of the other’s perspective as on stating your own clearly and fairly. It is very important to always respect our partner’s feelings, even if we think that, in the same circumstances, we would not feel that way.
  • No ‘Fouls” ie no name calling, no bringing up the past, not using ‘always’ or ‘never'.
  • Rather than regarding your partner as the opposition, over whom you are trying to win, think of yourselves as on the same team, addressing an issue that is problematic for the team. The most solid relationships are built when both partners exist on equal footing., not one dominating the other.
  • Having clarified and understood each other’s point of view, look for solutions to the problem, rather than attack the other and defend yourself. Ie attack the problem not the person.
  • Choose a solution that you both think might work, write it down, and agree to give it a try. Regard it as an experiment, which you will observe and evaluate, making modifications if necessary. Requesting change is helpful; demanding change is often harmful to the relationship.
  • Don't be afraid of an argument. When carried out with respect and maturity a conflict can be an incredibly healthy way to build communication and intimacy (getting to know each other in a deeper way) between yourself and your partner.