Tips for Navigating Couple Conflict
Most couples come to therapy at their tipping points; when something has happened, when they are in crisis, and when they need help and tools to fix it! Until then, they may stumble through marrital conflict, guns blazing, ready to attack, and at least one partner is always ready to win. Sound familiar to anyone? I know I’ve been there myself.
No matter what our childhoods looked like, we have all experienced wounding in one way or another from our earliest relationships with our primary caregivers. The degrees to which these woundings occurred vary, and the ways in which this manifests vary too. One thing is certain: unresolved childhood wounds will always show up in your adult relationships. By the time we are in relationships that are intimate enough to land us in therapy, there has likely been a whole lot of wounding and a whole lot of ineffective arguing.
We can all learn new tricks!
The good news is that couples can learn to fight better and healthier with one another. The guns-out, ready-to-attack, ready-to-win approach only results in power struggles, leading us farther away from our goals and creating more distance between each other. Working with a couples therapist can help you and your partner learn new skills and new ways of being together. Therapy can enhance your relational experience and bring you closer to one another. A couples therapist can help you bridge the gap between where you are and where you wish to be in your life as you create the relationships you’ve longed for.
These six skills of navigating conflict, based on those identified by couples therapist Robert Taibbi (2017), can help couples clear up misunderstandings, problem-solve more efficiently, and bring positive emotions back into the experience of being together. I hope they make a difference for you and your partner. If you need more help – just ask!
Become Aware of Your Conflict Patterns
Pay attention to what and how you argue and learn to separate your process from your content. Consider that your process may be flawed. Often, couples repeat the nature of their arguments as they get into dysfunctional patterns of communication, exacerbated by escalating emotions. If you find that you are arguing about the same things again and again, consider that your process of arguing – your technique – is ineffective.
Try to use I-statements as often as possible, whereby you take ownership of your feelings, and make a clear, assertive, and specific ask of your partner.
When you hear yourself saying “you never…” or “you always…,” this should set off the red-zone alert: time to pivot your process! Instead of saying “you never help me clean up,” try, “I feel sad and unappreciated when you retreat to the couch after dinner without helping me clean the kitchen.” Then follow up with a direct and clear ask such as: “I would love it if you could ask me if I need help or even tell me to sit and rest and do it yourself on occasion.” Changing your process and focusing on your content will bring you closer to your goal of navigating conflict and closer to one another.
Practice Active Listening During Conflict
Oftentimes in conflict, we think that we are hearing our partner but, in fact, we are reactive or in defense mode before their words even come out. Active listening requires us to slow down, lower our defenses, and be truly present in the moment, open and ready to hear your partner’s heart. Mirroring is a process that many clients have found great success with. Instead of allowing that chatter in your head to say, “oh great, there she goes again,” – activating all your past wounding and your defenses – try instead to reflect back to your partner what you think they are saying and feeling in the moment.
Try this together with your therapist, and definitely practice at home. You might try, “what I hear you saying is that you feel unappreciated and maybe even unloved when I don’t offer to help you in the kitchen” or “if I’m understanding you correctly you’re saying that you feel taken advantage of” and then check-in to make sure you got it right; “am I getting that right?” If you don’t get it right the first time, allow your partner to share his or her feelings again, and try once more or until you hear their words as intended, and they feel heard and seen.
Fight Clean in Conflict
Don’t fight dirty! Name-calling, defensiveness, counterattacks, and bringing up the past is not allowed, especially when you’ve already entered into conflict. Practice self-regulation and help your partner do the same by calling him/her out when necessary and redirecting the conversation back to the here and now. Saying “Ugh, you are such a *****! I’m sick of having the same argument” or “At least I didn’t break your trust…” and then storming away is fighting dirty. Instead, try breathing and redirecting your partner as follows: “We aren’t talking about that right now; let’s stay focused. We are talking about today and about moving forward; about you helping me in the house and attending to my feeling unappreciated. Let’s talk so that we can move past this.”
If talking isn’t in the cards at the moment, it’s perfectly acceptable to take a time-out, especially if the alternative is fighting dirty.
It is important to stay both present in the here-and-now and simultaneously forward-focused toward solutions. Keep the past in the past. You might feel tempted to bring up the past to validate your own hurts and behavior, but I invite you to let it go, allow old wounds to heal, and stay current. Do not allow your emotions to take over, or you will both lose.
Know How to Kiss and Make Up
Show your willingness to repair. Just as it’s important to know when to walk away and calm down to reset, it’s equally important to know how to come back together after an argument.
Too often couples reignite old wounds through repeating arguments. Frustration then mounts and they angrily walk away, further growing the distance between them both physically and emotionally. Eventually, the storm passes over, but not without leaving behind some hidden wreckage. The things that we sweep under the rug don’t really go away; when we lift the rug they are still there, only dirtier and bigger than before. Avoiding a much-needed conversation also creates more distance between you and your partner and more damage to repair later. I recommend approaching your partner after a small time out and offering to talk it over. Lead with “hey, can we talk about earlier?” or consider wrapping your arms around each other and saying “I love you; I’m willing to let this go, let’s move on.”
Whatever you do, don’t allow conflict to fester and further disconnect you from each other. Learn how to circle back with one another and re-visit the situation once emotions have settled. If both partners are committed to repairing, they can move closer toward one another again, realigning both goals and hearts.
Learn How to Successfully Problem-Solve Conflicts
Too often couples pile on too much at once. A good skill is to break down the problem or issue at hand into manageable chunks and tackle one problem at a time. Sometimes, a little investigative work is needed to get to the root of the upset. Stay present and focused, together as a couple, on the bottom line.
This might require one partner to lead the other back if one goes astray – to stay focused in order to forge on together versus falling victim to yet another power struggle. Instead of “here we go again, you want me to work all day and then come home to you yelling at me about not helping after dinner … and…and…and…” try “what if I did the dishes and let you rest every Friday night; would that work for you?” Look for workable solutions, one at a time. Together, a couple can create new agreed-upon behaviors for their conflict, and their needs, and essentially learn to fight smarter.
Provide Positive Feedback
Did you know that people need a 4:1 ratio of positive versus negative comments to feel positive? Learn to ramp up the positive comments towards your partner and make sure they always outweigh the negatives. This can do wonders to enhance the emotional climate between couples! When we are stuck in the negative, it becomes all we can see. Piling on the positives toward our partner can be challenging, but the rewards are worth it. Sometimes you might have to really dig, or fake it till you make it, and that’s ok too. Clients are often surprised how much increasing positive feedback can actually lower instances of conflict, creating a proactive approach to couple conflict.
I always tell clients to think about what they wish to see more of – something their partner does only occasionally that they really appreciate, or simply something that will make them feel good. You might try: “I love it when you take out the trash after dinner; it makes me feel cared for,” or “you look great today, I love it when you wear a dress” or “I love it when you bring me coffee to bed. I’m so lucky!”
What you focus on grows, so focus on and amplify that which you wish to see more of with your partner, colleagues, employees, friends, and kids alike!
For help navigating conflict as a couple or to discuss any other matter in more detail, schedule an appointment with Dr. Galit Birk here.