It is inevitable that disagreements and conflict exists in our relationships due to the simple fact that as individuals, we each carry our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, preferences, and styles of communication. Because of our individuality, there is potential for differences to arise in our significant relationships, which can offer opportunities for growth and connection or result in arguments, tension, and disconnection depending on how we manage these differences. The good news is that there are some guidelines we can follow to promote the former when concerns within our relationships are brought to our attention.
· Think before you speak. Before you broach a subject or verbalize a concern or complaint to your partner, take some time to really think about and evaluate the reason you are feeling upset. Try to determine if the reason is related to any patterns that are worth addressing or if the reason is simply related to you having a bad day.
· Tackle one issue at a time. It can be easy to bring up multiple concerns at once when we have the floor to express ourselves however this just compounds the problems and makes reaching a resolution for each issue more challenging. Instead, hold yourself accountable to dealing with one issue at a time and make note of the other concerns that can be addressed when the time is right.
· Attack the issue at hand, not the person. Avoid engaging in criticism, contempt, and other degrading language. These damaging forms of communication prevent the issue from being addressed and instead escalate conflict as a result of making a partner feel bad by attacking his or her character.
· Take responsibility for your feelings by using “I” statements. We tend to automatically go on the defensive when someone we are talking with starts off by using “you”. “You” statements tend to be blaming and send the message that “you are the problem, not me.” In order to help your partner be open to hearing what you have to say, identify and own the feeling you are having in relation to a situation that upset you. For example, “I felt hurt when you lied to me” versus “you made me angry because you lied.”
· Actively listen and take turns talking. Talking about emotionally charged subjects can make it difficult to refrain from engaging in interrupting however that only makes matters worse. Instead, listen to what your partner is saying and reflect back to them what you heard them say before you respond. This helps prevent misunderstandings and sends the message that you heard and understand what was said. For couples who struggle with taking turns, using a timer can help add structure to the conversation and allow time for each partner to speak.
· Maintain an appropriate volume and tone of voice and take a time out when needed. Yelling at or ignoring your partner when you are feeling upset may feel rewarding temporarily however these problematic forms of communication just add to the conflict. If you start to notice that the conversation is becoming heated, take a time out and be sure to identify how long the time out will be as well as be mindful about how the time out will be used. Avoid engaging in behaviors or activities that will be counterproductive to de-escalating. Then reconvene at the time you agreed to so that the issue can continue to be addressed in a calm manner.
· Consider whether there are solutions to moving forward. Sometimes disagreements or conflict cannot be solved but rather just acknowledged and understood by each partner. However, try to focus on any possible positive solutions that can promote resolution for both partners and come to a compromise so that it works for the couple.
When couples are able to take time and the necessary steps to effectively navigate differences and conflict, it can strengthen the relationship. Conflict can actually be healthy if partners are able to view the process as an opportunity to learn and grow from one another. The next time you or your partner verbalizes a concern about your relationship, embrace this opportunity to grow by applying these guidelines to the issue at hand.