Arguing and disagreeing is inevitable in relationships, however many couples’ conflict style is destructive not constructive. Whenever we argue, we should try to utilise certain ‘terms and conditions’ in order to resolve the conflict and move forward. Following these simply rules can help you and your partner break old habits and move through conflict more smoothly.
- Always use ‘I’ language
One of the most important communication skills is to learn the use of ‘I’ messages. Begin to use the words “I feel [ ]…” when talking to your partner.
“I feel unimportant when you’re late for dinner and don’t call” is much more effective than, “you don’t care about anyone but yourself, or you wouldn’t keep me waiting.” – I feel [an emotion]….
The ‘you’ statement is a blaming statement, and will often start or escalate an argument. An ‘I’ statement just reports feelings and is easier for your partner to respond in a positive way as they don’t feel like they are being blamed.
Feeling words include words such as: hurt, angry, frustrated, lonely, inadequate, happy, loving.
Beware: Don’t use ‘I feel’ when you mean ‘I think’.
“I feel that you…” or “I feel as though you…” or “I feel like you…” are thinking statements, not feeling statements. You are analysing your partner, not expressing your feelings.
- Never fight in your bedroom
The bedroom should be a place of good feelings, mutual respect and love. This is a place for you to share intimate time together as a couple, when you are having sex, sleeping or simply lying next to each other, or for family time with your kids. Your bedroom is not a boxing ring.
This rule also applies to fighting late at night. Instead of continuing to argue when you are both tired, call a time out or “code red” and stop all conflict until the next day. It is okay to leave conflict over night, and it can actually have a positive effect on the situation as it gives you both time to cool down. My suggestion is that if you fight just before you go to sleep, call a mutually agreed upon ‘time out’, go to sleep in the same bed, and talk about it calmly and rationally the next morning.
- Time and place (and pace).
Just as I’ve mentioned above that you shouldn’t carry on a fight when it’s late or you’re both tired, the same rule applies to where and when you fight. No body likes that couple who fights while out with all their friends, and fighting in front of your kids is not setting a good model for their understandings of a healthy relationship. Make a point that if conflict arises while you’re in company, put it aside until later and try to be as civil and nice to each other as you can until you’re able to talk. This, again, will give you time to calm down and think more rationally.
Try not to raise your voice, yell, scream or shout. It’s very easy when we’re upset to let our tone and voice get out of control, but try to make an active effort to talk calmly and reasonably to your partner. It will lead to a better result (see point 7.)
- Stick to the topic
Many people hold grudges and bring up old arguments in new fights. Make a point not to dig up past issues or negative feelings about an old situation unless it is directly relevant to the conflict. It’s also important to remember that accusing your partner of something that they aren’t aware bothers you should not be used as ammunition against them.
For example, if you and your partner are fighting about a family incident, blaming them for never picking up after themselves is not going to be useful in this context. Stick to the current conflict, your feelings and try to calmly and rationally discuss with your partner how to move forward, to the best of both your abilities. You can bring up their bad habits at another time.
- Never, ever resort to physical violence
This applies to throwing and smashing things as well… Absolute no. If you find you see red during conflict, you need a time out! Walk away, take 10-15 minutes to breathe and think, and then try to come together again to talk it through rationally and reasonably.
If you feel that your aggression and anger is out of control, contact a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help you work through the anger and teach you techniques to calm you down in those aggravating situations.
- Figure out if you’re the tortoise or the hurricane
Most often in relationships we play 1 of 2 roles: distance or pursuer. The distance is likened to a tortoise who wants to hide in their shell when conflict arises and ignore the situation, and the pursuer is the one who is likened to a hurricane and wants to deal with things immediately, often with haste and not thinking things through properly. Both are not ideal for constructive communication. In order to communicate, couples need to be aware of who plays what role, and then make an effort to change their communication style. If you prefer to ignore and distance, you must make the effort to think about it and present your concerns. If you prefer to deal without thinking, you need to make an effort to think first, give your partner some space, and then deal with the concerns when you have calmed down (to a light drizzle).
- Try to be in your adult
Very often when we relate to someone close to us, we relate to them in a parent, child or adult state. The parents can be authoritative or nurturing, the child can be wounded or free-spirited and the adult is rational, reasonable, logical and tries to see things from another person’s point of view. Being in your parent state means that you might be nurturing, supportive or spoiling to your partner or you might be bossy, authoritative and critical of them. When we are in our child state, we may either be free-spirited by being carefree or immature, or wounded by throwing a tantrum or ‘hiding’ from the problem. It is perfectly fine to be in either your child or parent state at any time, but try to get into your adult state when conflict arises.
Our adult state is the state we strive to be in when we are in conflict. It is rational, reasonable, logical, calm and most importantly, we can try to understand the other person’s side of the story. Adult state allows you to focus on the here and now. You listen to your partner and don’t interrupt them. You give them the chance to explain their side and you try to understand where they are coming from. If you and your partner can be in adult to adult state, you’re far more likely to resolve and conflict quickly and move on.
- Active listening
Active listening means to listen to your partner without thinking about anything else but what they are saying. It means to pay full attention with your ears, body and mind.
We often act like we are listening, but we are doing “whatever listening” – when we are distracted to what a person is saying as we don’t care; “I’m right…” listening – when we already know we’re right and have the answer, and so stop listening before a person has finished speaking; or “what’s next…” listening – where we are thinking ahead or we are thinking of something completely different while a person is talking to us.
If you and your partner struggle with listening to each other, or often lose the meaning, allow one partner to speak, the other partner must then repeat back what they heard and how they understood it, and then the speaking partner must correct or agree with what was repeated back to them.