“Well timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.” – Martin Farquhar Tupper
A great deal of unnecessary conflict in relationships occurs due to miscommunication, mismatched expectations, or insensitivity. When you notice the beginning signs of potential conflict in your relationships with others, you can take proactive steps toward restoring harmony before things escalate. Many steps toward increasing harmony in relationships are surprisingly simple, yet not always easy, ways of increasing mindfulness, openness, and sensitivity to what the other person is feeling, thinking, or saying.
Try to let go of the idea that conflict in relationships is inherently “bad” and indicates something is “wrong” with the relationship. Conflict is inevitable. When two people come together to build a loving relationship, they bring with them a lifetime of personal experiences, expectations, hopes, and beliefs. Your view is not necessarily better or worse than your partner’s – it is simply different. If you had been raised in the same environment as him or her, with the same parents, and with the same biological predispositions, you would be a very different person than you are today.
As you release your attachment to needing to avoid conflict at all costs or to label conflict as indicative of something “bad” in your relationship, open yourself to thinking about conflict in a new way. While conflict is unavoidable, hurt feelings and regrets are much more avoidable. When you no longer view conflict itself as the dreaded enemy, you will begin to see that it is not the manifestation of conflict in a relationship that necessarily causes harm. What causes harm in relationships is handling conflict unskillfully and ineffectively.
When you make the conscious choice to increase your empathy for your partner’s perspective, your feelings of anger, hostility, or resentment may begin to soften. It becomes much easier to understand how this person whom you love may be reacting the way that they are given their personal set of circumstances and lifetime experiences. Remember that accepting and understanding your partner’s behavior does not necessarily mean that you approve of or will tolerate those behaviors. This is when skillful and loving communication can begin to pave the way back to harmony within your meaningful relationship.
You can use conflict as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship, rather than tear it apart. When you become aware of the presence of conflict through internal cues (tension, anger, anxiety, or discomfort) or external cues (your partner withdrawing, defending, or attacking), use this as an opportunity to make the choice to handle this conflict differently than you have in the past. Mindfully recognize that conflict seems to be on the horizon and prepare yourself (and your partner) to use its presence as an opportunity to strengthen your loving bond, deepen empathy, and increase your communication skills as a couple.
(1) Decide on a specific topic and time to communicate
If there is a salient or lingering issue that feels important to resolve with your partner, communicate with him or her about a specific time and place to talk. Ask your partner if he or she is willing to have this discussion with you. Try to avoid “forcing” conversations upon your partner, as this may feel intrusive. When your partner feels like a willing participant in the dialogue, he or she is much more likely to enter the discussion with feelings of openness or warmth. Let your partner know the specific topic you would like to discuss as you inquire into his or her willingness to have this conversation with you. Remember to be flexible as you choose a time to have this conversation, allowing it to be convenient and amenable to both of your schedules.
(2) Stay on topic
When you set aside a mutually agreed upon specific time to discuss a specific topic, do your best to uphold your end of the bargain by staying on topic. Conversations about specific issues can easily digress into much larger conversations about potentially weightier issues. Try to avoid using any one conversation as an opportunity to air your litany list of complaints against your partner, as this can easily become overwhelming and result in your partner either shutting down or lashing out.
When specific discussions devolve into a conversation about “everything” that is bothering you, your partner may end up feeling a bit tricked into your original invitation to have a conversation about a “specific” topic and respond by avoiding these discussions with you in the future. If you find yourself gravitating toward the role of generalizing specific problems to much larger issues, remember to use your emotion regulation coping skills in the moment to avoid emotionally escalating or feeling overwhelmed.
(3) Practice active listening
It’s not enough to simply sit there like a bump on a log while your partner discusses what is on his or her mind. For communication to be effective and meaningful, it is crucial that you communicate to your partner (verbally and non-verbally) that you are really hearing what he or she is saying. Let your partner know that you really understand where he or she is coming from by using reflective statements such as “It sounds like you’re feeling upset right now because…” or “I’m hearing you say that you felt frustrated when…”
Take the time to really check in with your partner about the content and meaning of his or her message to be assured that you truly understand. Let your partner know what you heard and then check in with him or her to be sure that you understand the meaning of what was said. Avoid assuming that you “get it” without really listening to all of your partner’s feelings. Just because you think something immediately makes sense to you because you would feel that way, that doesn’t necessarily mean your partner is feeling the way that you imagine. Rather than allow misunderstandings to fester and grow, take the time to clarify and take in the full meaning of your partner’s words.
In adult relationships, you cannot get “all” of your needs met “all” of the time. This is unrealistic and terribly one-sided. No matter how much you and your partner may have in common, you are still two separate individuals who are entitled to privacy, individual space, and your own wants/needs. Part of being in a mature and healthy relationship is about respecting and caring for your partner enough to allow and even encourage him to get his own needs met independently. When you allow your partner a bit of physical, mental, and emotional space to simply be an individual, they are quite likely to respond by affording you the same space.
Choose your “battles” mindfully and wisely. Ask yourself if a certain issue is worth it to you to really put your foot down on and refuse to compromise. If there is a way for each of you to get your needs met as individuals, choose to venture down those paths rather than those that allow you to confidently get your own needs met. Consider the themes of perpetual conflicts that arise within your relationship and take the time to examine the roots of those conflicts. Disputes are rarely about what they “appear” to be about. They are often about much deeper needs and desires that can be uncovered and ultimately met through open, deliberate, and loving communication and compromise.
(5) Be loving
When you are speaking to someone you care about, remember to bring some of that love into the tone of your voice and the words that you choose. You are not talking to a business partner about negotiating a financial deal; you are talking to your partner whom you love about a personal issue. Avoid what Drs. John and Julie Gottman call the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:”
Gottman’s research indicates that these behaviors are predictive of early divorce – an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. Emotional withdrawal and anger were found to predict later divorce – an average of 16.2 years after the wedding. Gottman’s research stresses the importance of having a positive-to-negative ratio of 0.8 or less in your interactions with your partner. The idea is to continually invest in your relationship’s “emotional bank account” by actively engaging in kind and loving behaviors. When your emotional bank account is full of positive interactions, negative interactions are more likely to be attributed to things like your partner having a tough day or being distracted, as opposed to attributing them to your partner being “a jerk.”
How might your future relationship conflicts be different in a positive and meaningful way if you begin to approach them with greater mindfulness, empathy, and kindness? When you begin to become less fearful of conflict per se, you will begin to realize that it is not conflict that is the dreaded enemy to be avoided… it is the escalation and unskillful resolution of conflict that causes damage to relationships. Try to look upon the next conflict that you experience in your relationship as an opportunity to increase empathy, understanding, and strength in your relationship.
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Harmon, J. (2012, January 29). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/01/29/5-relationship-skills-for-conflicts/
Featured image: tenderness by jurvetson / CC BY 2.0