It will probably come as no surprise that most of the couples I see for counseling struggle with how to handle conflict in a healthy way. Many engage in word warfare, attacking and defending against criticism and blame, until each retreats to tend to their emotional wounds. Or they find themselves repeating the same argument over and over, without ever finding any resolution.
It is often the determination to argue our point and defend our position, that keeps us on that conflict merry-go-round. When we see ourselves as adversaries, entering the ring to fight, it is inevitable that there will be a winner and a loser. But can we really consider it a victory if our win has come at the cost of our partner’s feelings and needs?
Relationship experts, Drs. John and Julie Gottman advise that it is only when both people feel understood and believe their feelings and needs are important that you can move toward compromise. If your first response to hearing your partner’s perspective is to give them your take on the situation, it gives no indication that you actually heard or understood them. It has been my experience, both personally and professionally, that a person who feels unheard or misunderstood, is more likely to continue restating their position. It is easy to see how this could escalate emotions and ultimately be unproductive.
When I meet with couples, I encourage them to move away from the win/lose mentality toward a win/win scenario that allows both partners to walk away feeling heard and understood. This is accomplished by making the issue the adversary, taking turns sitting in each other’s corner to consider the best strategies to emerge victorious together. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid followed by some helpful tips.
Things to avoid…
- Don’t assume your partner can read your mind.
- If your partner’s actions were upsetting or offensive to you, don’t assume that was their
- Don’t make accusations (“you always”, “you never”) that are likely to put your partner
on the defensive.
- Don’t reject or judge the feelings expressed by your partner by denying them (“you
can’t be tired, you’ve hardly done anything”) or suggesting they are wrong to feel that
way (“You’re overreacting”; “That’s nothing to be mad/sad/worried about”).
- Avoid nonverbal cues that may cause your partner to feel unimportant, such as not
giving your full attention; expressing impatience (tapping foot, loud sighs); or contempt (rolling eyes or sneer).
Ways to win…
- Remember there are always two valid perspectives (yours and theirs)—neither is more right or wrong
- Take turns being the speaker and the listener, without interrupting or interjecting.
- Describe your experience and NOT your partner! An easy way to do this is to use this
format: “I feel______, when_____, because____. It would help me if_____.” For example: “I feel lonely when you are on your phone at night because it gets in the way of us having time to talk about our days with each other. It would help me if we could have about 30 minutes with phones put away and the TV off.”
- Let your partner know their feelings are important to you by using reflective listening (“So what I heard you say was…” or “I understand that when this happens, you feel…”).
Conflict is a natural and healthy part of all relationships. Hopefully this approach helps your experience be more positive and productive!