Conflict is a normal part of relationships
As a couples and sex therapist, the number one thing I see is the loss of intimacy in a couple’s marriage or relationship. Whether it’s sexual dysfunction, pain with penetrative sex, or loss of libido, partners and spouses often come to me with concerns about their physical and sexual connection.
But the next most popular concern?
Communication and conflict resolution.
- “We can’t stop fighting, whether it’s about sex or something as silly as the dishes.”
- “We argue a lot and it never feels like our arguments end or resolve. Instead, we just pick up where we left off the next time it comes up.”
Sound familiar? Every couple experiences conflict at some point in their relationship. And in my opinion, it’s not the fact that you’re having conflict that’s the issue; it’s how you handle those conflicts that can make or break your relationship.
With the right tools and techniques, you can learn to communicate effectively and resolve conflicts in a healthy and productive way. The kind of way that brings the spark and passion back to your relationship.
If you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling and intimacy and connection feel like they are slipping away, focusing on your communication and conflict resolution skills is a useful first step.
1. Agree on the rules of engagement
No name calling, yelling or physicality when you’re in conflict.
The first and one of the most important aspects of successful conflict resolution is setting ground rules for how you will communicate during disagreements. At a bare minimum, couples should agree to avoid name-calling, yelling, and physical violence directed at or around your partner.
Knowing the rules and being held accountable to one another in following them can help you create a safe and respectful environment to express your feelings and needs. Establishing these rules of engagement, and operating within them consistently, can create a foundation for healthy communication and conflict resolution in your marriage or partnership.
2. Identify and express your needs and feelings clearly.
In order to successfully resolve conflicts in your relationship, it’s important to identify and express your needs and emotions clearly. This means taking the time to reflect on what you are feeling and why, and then communicating that to your partner in a non-judgmental way.
Sometimes what you want and what you feel are not readily apparent. If that’s the case, try focusing on whether this is about you as a person or about your connection with your partner. Most often our needs and fears fall into one of two camps: independence and autonomy needs or intimacy and connection needs. If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s going on for you, try starting with this question:
“Is this about my desire to feel connected and secure with my partner? Or is this about my need to feel heard, seen and accepted for who I am?”
Hopefully, that will point you in the right direction! Then, remember to approach your partner with your emotions and needs from a calm and level-headed place. By expressing yourself clearly, you can help your partner understand where you are coming from and work together to find a solution that works for both of you.
*Side note: if all you’re coming up with right now is anger, take a structured timeout (more on that below) and try looking under the surface of your frustration. Anger is a motivating force and it usually gets activated when something doesn’t feel right to us. For example, “I’m angry because I’m actually feeling hurt by you” or “I’m furious because I feel betrayed as a result of your actions.” If you’re both approaching each other from a soft-hearted place, it will be easier to find understanding and reconcile after an argument.
3. Use those “I” statements, instead of the blaming, “you” statements.
When discussing a conflict with your partner, it’s important to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Many of us have now been taught that “I-statements are good and you-statements are bad,” but do we know what the difference is in practice?
The easiest distinction is instead of saying “You always make me feel neglected,” try saying “I feel neglected when we don’t spend enough time together.” This approach is far less accusatory and it puts the focus on your own feelings and experiences, rather than placing blame on your partner. It can also help your partner better understand your perspective and work towards a resolution together.
But there are more insidious forms of you-statements that I feel are worth mentioning here. Starting off a sentence with, “I feel” or “I think” but then concluding with something about your partner’s behavior, intentions or state of mind is just as bad as saying, “You did this to me.” For example, “I feel that you always neglect me” is not an I-statement. That is a you-statement (and an accusation) in disguise. Here I would recommend trying to identify your emotion first and then let your partner know what inspired that emotion for you. Coming back to the example, “I feel neglected when we don’t spend enough time together,” is a good example of that distinction.
4. Listen with empathy and the intent to understand
Another important aspect of successful conflict resolution is the ability to listen with empathy and the intent to understand. This means actively listening to your partner’s perspective without interrupting or dismissing their feelings.
I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve had in my office (or virtually) who aren’t even having the same conversation! He’s fighting about how little sex they have and she’s arguing with him about their lack of emotional intimacy. (I’ve also seen it where the gender roles are reversed). And because they’re not listening to one another, they continue to miss the point, as well as each other, in their communication.
When you listen only to know when you can jump in with your own perspective on the matter, you’re not communicating or resolving the conflict.
Listening with empathy means putting yourself in your partner’s or spouse’s shoes and trying to see the situation from their point of view. Having a greater understanding of where your partner is coming from helps you to build a safe and supportive environment for open and honest communication. Those things are essential for resolving conflicts in a healthy and productive way.
5. Take a structured timeout when emotions run high.
When emotions run high during a conflict, it can be difficult to communicate effectively and find a resolution. In fact, all the research says that when couples become flooded emotionally and/or physically, the chances of them resolving the conflict drops exponentially. But a lot of couples continue fighting long past the point when they should have stopped to calm themselves down. Why is that?
Well a lot of partners have told me that when they take a break or leave the conversation, the likelihood that the argument fades into the background and isn’t spoken of again (until you find yourself in another fight) is very high.
Because of this rather common objection to timeouts, I like to add the caveat that your timeout needs structure.
What I mean by that is when one or both of you need a break from fighting, but you haven’t finished the argument, agree to take a break for a set amount of time, such as 30 minutes or an hour. The length of time needs to be agreed upon by both parties. When time is up you return to each other and the disagreement at hand.
The objective of taking a timeout is to regulate your emotions and return to the conversation with a calmer mindset. During a break, self-soothing activities such as deep breathing, journaling or going for a walk can be beneficial to approaching the conflict again in more useful ways.
What if you’re not sufficiently soothed by the time you have to go back to the conversation? Return to your partner and let them know you need more time. Agree on the next timeout and focus on returning to a more tranquil state of mind.
There are about as many ways to resolve an argument as there are couples in the world. That’s because the way you and your partner or spouse fight is going to be unique to you. But with a couple of foundational principles, you too can resolve conflict more easily in your relationship or marriage.
Until next time,