Being committed, whether you’re in a marriage, a common-law relationship, or cohabiting in a committed relationship, can be the greatest experience.
Having someone to talk with, share experiences with, someone who has your back, someone to belong to can give you both warm tingles of safety and security, and the joy of being loved. Being in a team of two can feel like you can achieve anything you want together.
On the other hand, a conflict, a disagreement, an argument, or a fight can be the worst, most painful, discouraging, and demoralizing experience.
I know, because I’ve entered the ring of relationship conflict more than once personally. I’ve witnessed many clients over years of practice, fall into the depths of despair and emotional pain when marital conflicts rear their nasty head.
Here are 5 steps to resolve conflicts with your partner and move towards a healthier relationship.
1. Criticizing your partner
Think of the last time you and your partner had a disagreement. Chances are, one of you said something to the other that was completely misunderstood.
Maybe you said something you meant to be humorous, maybe you used a critical or sarcastic tone of voice, perhaps you even meant to be a bit mean, but it ultimately led to marriage arguments.
“Thanks, honey, for emptying the dishwasher. I notice you didn’t get the skillet very clean. I don’t see how I can use it again the way it looks now.”
“Are you really going to wear that dress? I don’t think it looks that great on you anymore.”
“I see that woman/man across the street is kind of sexy looking, kind of like you used to.”
“Why did you have to tell our friends about our credit card debt?
It’s none of their business about our finances, and it makes me look bad.”
“Can’t you pick up after yourself when you’re done with whatever that was you were doing?”
I could go on with examples of provocative comments in couples. You don’t need me to, I’m sure.
2. The silent treatment
The next stage is when the trouble starts.
One partner may go suddenly silent, a strong trigger for the other one.
“Oh, so you’re not talking to me now. I guess I did it again. I put my foot in it. Now the whole evening is lost. I’m going to bed.”
“Great, just walk away. You never want to talk anything through. How long will it take you to discuss what happened, and why I’m upset?”
“I need some time by myself to think about what just happened. I might need a couple of days.”
“A couple of days?! Maybe I won’t be here for a couple of days.”
The thing about couple disagreements in relationships is that it’s bound to happen sometimes. But we can’t let the marital conflicts in a relationship escalate to where it destroys everything but rather, learn to resolve conflicts.
A provocative comment is said. One person gets hurt or upset. That person sends out a message of punishment by showing how hurt they are. The other partner counter punishes by going silent, withdrawing from the scene, or as Gottman calls it, by stonewalling.
Often, during the next part of the marriage sequence’s disagreements, one or both individuals start to obsess, remembering similar hurts either earlier in life or historical injuries on the part of the current partner.
Another possible response is the feeling of futility, “After all, I do for them. This is the thanks I get.”
This review of past hurts and injuries can result in a deep stress response, both physically and psychologically.
Whatever road to feelings of rejection and injustice the person might follow, negative emotions are likely to ensue.
These experiences can be very deflating and painful.
3. Settling disagreements
In my view, there are two strategies to help avoid entering the abyss of disharmony and resolve conflicts.
First, I believe that all couples need to set a policy together, during a time when they are getting along well, about how to manage fights (I don’t mean physical fights when I use that word).
If things get physical, it’s time to get apart, safe, and re-evaluate the whole arrangement with some outside help. I am referring to interpersonal conflict.
Any discussion about how to manage conflict must include a time limit, from the start of an argument to the time a discussion, an effort towards making peace will begin.
An agreement set in stone needs to be made that says something like, no matter what the issue, and even if one or both of us need some time apart, we will discuss before bedtime.
Sometimes, getting clarity on what went wrong or on how the other feels will be enough to resolve conflicts. Other times the clarity will not come. This may mean agreeing to disagree and revisiting the matter the next day.
4. Self-regulate negative emotions
Either way, having the experience of broaching a discussion of the conflict in a peaceful manner may, in and of itself, be calming and open the door to a better effort at the resolution the next day. It may make each member of the couple more hopeful that the problem can be solved.
Within the time frame from the conflict occurring and the discussion before retiring for the night, it is incumbent upon each member of the pair to engage in mindful reflection.
Mindful reflection means self-regulating base emotions by shifting your inner thoughts away from being reactive, feeling insulted, offended, threatened, fearful, and hopeless.
Positive self-talk, counting your blessings, seeing the good in yourself and in your partner, having faith that good relations will return, finding ways to calm yourself, all may lead to a wonderful sense of mastery of your feelings and hence, resolve conflicts.
It is a way to feel more independent and less reliant on the approval of others, less sensitive to rejection, and hopefully make you more able to be clear about what you can and can’t accept in terms of behaviors from your partner.
5. Mindful discussions
Picture a conversation between the two of you, at the end of the evening, after there has been a conflict after you have both taken some time to think and reflect and self-regulate.
One partner might say something like: “Now that I have had some time to think about it, I realize that I was feeling criticized by your comment about the dishes. It reminded me of things my mother used to say, which bothered me.”
Or the other partner might say: “When you react the way you did to my comment, I start to feel disrespected and just want to withdraw from you.”
Communication at that deeper level, more mindful handling of the disagreement between you to resolve conflicts, and the sense that you can handle your own distress, should bring you closer to a greater chance of handling future disagreements and resolve conflicts more sensitively.
In the video below, Mike Potter discusses 6 levels of communication in marriage. It starts with small talks and sharing facts in the first and second communication levels, respectively, and slowly shift towards blending in the sixth stage.
Know about it in detail below:
I know it can be tempting to go to all those self-righteous, who do you think you are, get away from me, kinds of feelings and interactions when there is a disagreement.
For some people, it’s a rush of adrenalin and a way of feeling powerful.
Try to believe me when I say, the knowledge that a conflict will be addressed before the day is out; and the practice of getting hold of those downward spiraling feelings all on your own will bring you back to that great sense of togetherness and love.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Sheldon is an experienced psychologist, marriage and family therapist. He uses talk therapy and deep listening to help people get over traumatic experiences, abuse and relationship and marital concerns. He has a masters degree in Counseling from San Diego State University. He is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Martiage and Family Therapy. Previously he wrote advice columns for the Globe and Mail national newspaper and Avenue Magazine. He has also taught courses in the Family Therapy Institute, Calgary Health Region for many years.