From Conflict to Connection: 3 Rules for Making Conflict Work in Your Favor
For many couples, the mere mention of something like conflict, arguing, or fighting can send them running for the hills. This is in part due to the belief that if you are a happy couple and in love, you will never fight with your partner. If one or both partners have this belief when a relationship first starts, then, unfortunately, it will be in for a rough surprise. The fact is that even the happiest couples disagree at times, and yet they still love their life together. How is this possible?
Before we get too far into this, let’s address that belief that happy couples who love one another will never fight. Why do fights come around? The answer is fairly simple: you and your partner are two different people. You grew up in different families, have had relationships with other people, and your experiences are different. Your views on issues and different facets of your relationship will differ. Even if you have the same goals as your partner for the relationship, chances are you will each have distinct views on how to reach those goals.
So, if conflict is inevitable at some point in a relationship, how is it that those couples that have the highest rates of satisfaction can get through it? For these couples, it is not the why of the conflict but rather the how. They understand conflict is going to be present in their relationship, so they focus on how they will have conflict. What does the how mean?
As couples, it is easy for us to get stuck in the content of the conflict. Maybe it was a purchase that cost too much, lack of physical affection, forgetting to ask if a partner wanted to join you in an activity, the list goes on and on. This list is the content of the argument, and when we get stuck in the details of this content, we are missing the bigger picture. These details are easy to get overly focused on because of the emotional response they create within us. Those intense feelings are there for a reason, so I must be justified, right?
Yes and no. Yes, your emotions are there to help provide us with information about what we are experiencing, and it is not wrong to have an emotion. However, when we use emotion only in an argument with our partner, and we trigger the emotional reaction in them, then we are about to get stuck in an emotional firestorm related only to the details. This is when we say things we regret later, go on the attack or get on the defensive, and conflict takes away from the balance of our relational bank account.
This is where the how comes in. How we manage ourselves and the conflict are what either leads to productive outcomes or those negative ones we just talked about above. As a couple, when we make the shift from “I’m going to win” to winning together, the how of our conflict will change. This does not mean that we delete emotions from our conflict and pretend they do not exist; rather, we use them as a sign that something is not going right and then work with our partner on how to move forward. We are taking away some of the power of our emotions and putting it into our couple team to make sure that conflict is productive rather than destructive.
That is what separates couples with high satisfaction from those with the beliefs that when you’re in love and happy, then you should never disagree. Those couples that have high connection see conflict as an opportunity to make course corrections in their journey together. They embrace the uniqueness of each partner, validate one another’s experiences, repair damage from withdrawals they might have made when getting upset and come back together to work as a team to reach a new height as a couple.
Changing the pattern of our conflict is not a light switch that we can flip and everything will be fine. It will take time, commitment to one another and to changing your how of conflict, and patience and understanding when it feels like things are going back to the old way. However, you can start to put things into place in your relationship to start changing the way conflict is managed in your relationship. You can start to see the value of winning together rather than going for the individual victory. To start that journey, here are three rules worth putting into place to empower your relationship.
Rule 1: Absolutely No Name-Calling
This may seem like an obvious rule when we are calm. However, if we are going off emotional reaction, are on the defensive, and our partner just got us in a place that hits too close to home, you might find this rule completely disappears. When we feel attacked, we like to return the favor. If we are hurting, we like to help the other person know what that hurt feels like by getting back at them. Again, this is the emotional reaction in conflict, and it is destructive to the relationship. You will drain the balance in your couple relational bank account in the blink of an eye.
When working with couples in therapy, there was an obvious change in demeanor and function of the relationship once name-calling began. Once name-calling is in the picture, the conflict shifts from the issue at hand to an attack on the character. For those couples that name-calling was a regular occurrence, therapy took longer, and much healing had to take place. We can never get those words back, and our partners will never forget them.
With that in mind, make it a rule set in stone that there will be no name-calling. This does nothing positive for the relationship, and you will not win together. Keep the focus on the issue at hand and how you plan to deal with it rather than veering off into name-calling territory. If this has been a feature of your relationship in the past, it will be time to repair the damage and demonstrate to your partner your love and commitment to them and that you were wrong about what you called them.
Rule 2: Each Partner has Unlimited Timeouts
What are timeouts used for in sports? Usually, it gives the coach a chance to refocus the players by changing their direction. It is also used as a time to rest and recover, which can help the players see the situation they are in differently. This same tool can be used in your relationship to help keep conflict on the right path and to keep both you and your partner focused on what is most important rather than getting lost in the details.
The hard part about this rule is honoring your partner’s timeout when they call one or your partner honoring yours. This is especially the case if either one of you is the type that likes to get the last word in. However, if a timeout is being called, it should indicate to both of you that the discussion is getting out of hand and going down the wrong road. Emotions might be hot, we could be nearing insults, and we might be moving further away from a resolution.
Unlike sports, however, you do not have a limited number of timeouts. Each of you has the necessary amount. This does not mean that a timeout is called to avoid the discomfort of conflict, as this will also lead down the wrong road to disconnect. Rather, timeouts are to be used to take some time to calm yourself, refocus your energies, and concentrate on what the relationship needs. Honor one another’s call for timeouts. If you are in it for the long haul with your partner, then there is no need to rush ahead and try to force your way through an argument. You have the time you need to win together, use it wisely.
Rule 3: Focus on Solution-Finding
Why do we get defensive during an argument? Why does conflict bring out intense emotional reactions in us? When working in couples, one of the biggest transformations that could be seen was when they went from problem dwelling to solution-finding. Problem dwelling is when we are hyper-focused on the content of our argument. Every offense of each partner is brought up in chilling, painful detail which only fuels our emotional reaction fire. We no longer see the goal of winning together; instead, we are focused on driving our point home.
The fact is we do not need to know every example to know what the problem is. We can work together to highlight what it is that is going on that is creating the trouble in our relationship. If an example is necessary, keep it quick and simple. You can even provide an example of you engaging in the problem behavior to help avoid the possibility of getting into a war. That shows us taking accountability rather than blaming. Getting to the root of the problem allows us to turn to solution-finding.
Solution finding is a much different conversation than problem dwelling. We are not throwing out all the examples we have of when our partners are wrong. Rather, we can now work together to figure out how we are going to move forward from the situation and what we are going to put in place to limit its chances of happening again in the future. When we face conflict collaboratively rather than individually, we strengthen our connection and make the necessary course corrections. The conversation takes on a completely different tone, and we seek to build one another up rather than tear them down.
It may take several conversations to truly reach a viable solution, especially if it is a re-occurring issue. Use your timeouts to make sure you stay on the same team and keep your focus on the solutions. Couples take on a whole new demeanor when they move from “we are doomed; we can’t get over this” to “we can do this together.” Avoid the finger-pointing that comes with problem dwelling and embrace the empowering transformation of solution-finding.
Conflict does not need to be scary and daunting. It does not need to be a sign that your relationship is over or that there is something inherently wrong with you or your partner. Conflict can be a powerful force for connection when we use it as a way to course-correct our relationship. Be patient as you try out these three new rules and have realistic expectations. You will need to try several times before their true impact is felt. Empower your relationship by facing conflict directly and finding ways to win together!