Write up by Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
It’s normal to have conflict in relationships. People are different, and their desires and needs will inevitably clash. Resolving disagreements in a healthy way creates understanding and brings couples closer together. The objective should be the betterment of the relationship. This is positive conflict. Below are 24 suggested rules – 12 Do’s and 12 Don’ts – for actualizing this goal.
Arguments are Good!
Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad sign. It means differences are surfacing, but in some relationships, differences aren’t acknowledged, because either one partner dominates a subservient one, or because both individuals are merged and don’t really know themselves or are sacrificing who they are to please one another. These solutions to differences usually backfire, because they build resentment and passive-aggressive behavior, and closeness and intimacy suffer. With these couples, conflict is a sign of growth and maturity. At the other extreme are high-conflict couples, where differences escalate into power struggles and communication becomes aggressive.
The Role of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is essential to assertiveness and healthy communication, which lay the foundation for avoiding fights and handling conflict. Unfortunately this isn’t the norm, especially among codependent couples. Not having had good role models for expressing anger and handling conflict, one or both partners is usually passive or aggressive. When it comes to disagreements, low self-esteem leads to:
- Taking things personally
- Inability to express needs and wants
- High reactivity
- Not taking responsibility for behavior, feelings, and needs
- Inability to be honest
- Undisclosed expectations of others
Rules of Engagement
In positive conflict, ideally, you’re able to verbalize your needs and wants and mutually work out compromises. Your intent and how you approach differences are critical. The objective should be to resolve a dispute to the satisfaction of both of you. It’s not about winning and losing. You can “win” an argument, but the relationship may suffer if your partner feels discounted, deflated, or resentful.
Planning when, where, and how you approach a disagreement is important for achieving satisfactory results. It’s helpful make up rules of engagement in advance. Here are suggested 12 Do’s and 12 Don’t’s. You won’t be able to achieve all of them or any all the time, but they’re guidelines to strive for:
1. Make it okay to “agree to disagree.” You don’t have to agree on everything. Try to accept irresolvable differences that don’t violate your values.
2. Have time-limited discussions and stick to the pre-set time. A half-hour is plenty. You can always reconvene.
3. Work through things as they come up. Don’t stockpile resentments; otherwise, each postponement becomes a block to the next communication.
4. Remember to maintain goodwill by separating the person you care about from the behavior. Assume he or she is doing their best and isn’t hurting you intentionally.
5. Take responsibility for your behavior, needs, and feelings. Use “I” statements to share your feelings and thoughts about yourself. This doesn’t include “I feel you’re inconsiderate.” Instead, say “I feel unimportant to you.”
6. Examine what unmet needs are making you angry. With I statements, be direct and honest about your feelings and needs in the relationship. Communicate the positive consequences of compliance.
7. Listen with curiosity and a desire to understand your partner, and to see the world through his or her eyes. When you don’t understand, ask for clarification. Remember that your partner is telling you his or her experience. It reveals the truth about them, not you. You’re free to disagree, but first see where the person is coming from.
8. Use a “we” approach. “We have a problem,” not “My problem with you is . . .”
9. Rather than demand your way, brainstorm solutions. Request your partner’s input, especially when it comes to changing his or her behavior.
10. Take a time-out if you start to get angry. This allows you to calm down and stop reacting. Reassure your partner that you’ll resume.
11. Use breaks to take responsibility for your part, think about solutions, and to self-soothe any hurt feelings.
12. Communicate your fears and guilt in the relationship.
1. Don’t have controversial discussions when you’re tired or the bedroom, which should kept a safe place.
2. Don’t make accusations or use the words, “always” or “never.”
3. Don’t bring in allies – other people’s opinions – or make comparisons to others.
4. Don’t switch topics, or retaliate with, “but you did . . .”
5. Don’t judge, blame, belittle, or be sarcastic or dismissive in words or facial expressions, such as rolling your eyes or smirking.
6. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind.
7. Don’t analyze your partner or impute motives or feelings to him or her.
8. Don’t interrupt or monopolize the conversation.
9. Don’t react or defend yourself. Instead communicate your point of view.
10. Don’t bring up the past – anything more than a few days old.
11. Don’t rolodex grievances. Stick to the current one. You don’t need more “evidence” that you’re right and your partner is wrong.
12. Don’t compromise your bottom lines in the relationship, if they’re non-negotiable. It will lead to more conflict later.
Effective problem-solving takes time and practice. It first requires learning assertiveness.