When a partner needs space and we need intimacy; when we’re spontaneous and they like to plan; when we’ve done well with our abundance mind-set and they account for every penny, conflicts can erupt. We tend to pair with people whose way of being in the world is different from our own, sometimes dramatically. Reframing conflict as a helpful indicator of personal and relational growth opportunities can reduce anxiety and propel a relationship forward. Approached from this standpoint, conflicts are starting points for deeper awareness.
Talking to your partner about ground rules for your disagreements when both of you are calm can help you co-create parameters that will serve you later. It’s much harder to be constructive and positive when emotions are running high. This is a part of developing what Terry Real calls “relational esteem,” which he defines as “the capacity to hold the relationship in warm regard in the face of its imperfections and limitations, to cherish the relationship as the union between two flawed human beings.” Because couples tend to repeat old, defensive, or reactive patterns in the midst of conflict, taking conscious steps to undo these patterns sets the stage for a new way of relating.
It makes more sense to prepare for inevitable conflicts and discuss how to go about disagreeing constructively than to pretend conflicts can be avoided. How will you speak when you’re angry or sad? What tone of voice will you use? Is sarcasm off-limits? Will you avoid bringing up unrelated incidents from the past to hammer home a point? What constitutes criticism? Can you agree to use “I-statements” and feeling language, or to go into another room and take a 5-minute break if you’re too upset to listen? What sign will you both agree to respect if one of you begins to feel emotionally overwhelmed? How will you express your needs and boundaries in the heat of the moment? How will you take care of yourself when the other person can’t help or reassure you?
When we feel scared or threatened, our minds often work in polarities—right or wrong, good or bad, fixable or hopeless. In the heat of conflict with a partner, it’s hard to live in the gray area of not knowing and to tolerate that ambiguity for as long as it takes the conflict to evolve into a larger, more inclusive relational picture. And yet it’s precisely in that gray area of our vulnerability, when our convictions and certainties take a back seat to our partner’s truth, that we can relinquish judgment for a little while and open our hearts. A broader perspective becomes possible—if we let it. The more we understand, the easier it is to collaborate.
Using conflict as a springboard for growth takes practice. Here’s a cheat sheet of tools and techniques you can use to develop and improve this skill:
It’s precisely in that gray area of our vulnerability, when our convictions and certainties take a back seat to our partner’s truth, that we can relinquish judgment for a little while and open our hearts. A broader perspective becomes possible—if we let it. The more we understand, the easier it is to collaborate.
- Pay attention to your body. Whatever your thoughts, beliefs, or convictions, you are an embodied being. Pay attention to the movement of energy in and around your bones, joints, muscles, skin, internal organs, and extremities. Notice the prickling, crawling, tight, hot, cool, or tingling experience you are having at any given moment. Body awareness can help you tune in to how conflict with your partner is impacting you physically. It can give you important information about what you may need to do to self-soothe and regulate your feelings and reactions.
- Recognize your need for connection. It can be hard to admit needing someone. Needing another person can feel scary, shameful, or even dangerous. Sometimes, we organize our lives so others are the needers and we are the needed, unconsciously trying to protect ourselves from hurt, disappointment, and rejection by creating a one-side-vulnerability dynamic. Recognizing you need your partner (even if, ultimately, you can live without them) can help connect you to your humanity and soften rigid defenses.
- Explicitly ask your partner if they’re available to talk about something, and respect their “no” if they’re not. So often, we assume if we’re in a relationship with someone, they owe it to us to be available to connect on our terms. When there’s a conflict, our sense of urgency can increase. This issue is so important that it can’t wait. It has to be resolved now. This assumption can doom a conversation from the start. If you can humbly recognize your partner doesn’t owe you their availability and instead request it, even if you need to request it multiple times, you are helping to create a safer shared psychic space within which to talk about something difficult.
- Avoid trying to resolve a conflict when you’re feeling triggered. When you’re upset, you are more likely to have success changing yourself and your own perspective than you are to change your partner’s behaviors and beliefs. Practice using self-soothing techniques such as counting, breathing, giving yourself some space and distance from your partner and the charged topic, listening to a guided audio meditation, taking a shower or bath, going for a walk, attending an exercise or yoga class, or connecting with a friend.
- Use a thought-challenging technique to identify and question your triggering belief on the spot. One part of the inquiry process developed and outlined in Byron Katie’s The Work involves “turning around” your beliefs to examine them from other angles. It can be an effective way of releasing thoughts and beliefs that fuel destructive anger. For example, if you’re about to criticize or yell at your partner because “she never listens to me,” try turning this belief around to another possibility: “I never listen to her.” Consider how that statement may be true. Or turn it around to “I never listen to me” and consider how you don’t listen to yourself when you get angry and out of control rather than self-soothing. Notice how your feelings change as your beliefs change, and how the energy of your conflict shifts when you stop blaming your partner.
- Katie, B. (2005). I need your love—Is that true? How to stop seeking love, approval, and appreciation and start finding them instead. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Real, T. (2002). How can I get through to you? Closing the intimacy gap between men and women. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
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