Talking in Circles? Get Communication Back on Track During a Fight

Sepia-toned photo shows couple in autumn clothing standing outside and talking intently with open, happy expressionsConflict is an inevitable part of relationships. No two people see everything the same way, have carbon copy preferences, share identical temperaments, care equally about things, express their wants and needs in the same ways, or handle their fears and disappointments alike.

Add to these differences the fact that each individual in the relationship wants to be important and feel special, and it becomes clearer why clashes are likely to occur in even the best relationships.

The following fictional scene can help illustrate how conflict develops and plays out in a relationship:

“I thought you said you were just going to Ralph’s to buy a chicken for dinner,” Jason said. “You’ve been gone for two hours.”

The game blared in the background, and the dishes were still stacked in the sink. The kids were in the other room arguing over something. The colorful grocery bags sat on the kitchen counter where she’d plopped them.

“Oh, please,” Beth said. “I’m 15 minutes late. You could help out instead of being a couch potato.”

Jason rifled through the bags. “I don’t see my ice cream. You knew it would melt…wherever, whoever, you stopped on the way home to see,” he snarked.

Beth braced herself. This was always how the fights began. The kids were hungry and getting louder. She’d asked him not to do this with them around. Her heart pounded in her ears. Her mouth was dry. Dinner would be late, and he’d eat in front of the TV again.

“I had to go to the bank and pick up the dry cleaning.” She turned her back to him and pulled produce out of the bags. “Stop being so insecure!”

“I wouldn’t be if you didn’t give me good reason,” Jason said. 

Kyle ran into the kitchen wiping his tears on a dirty T-shirt. “She took my turn!” he wailed, then threw himself on the floor sobbing.

“I can’t even leave them with you for an hour.” Beth shook her head and sat down on the tile floor next to their son.

Jason rolled his eyes. “This is hopeless,” he said. “You don’t even care.”

Tips to Minimize Relationship Conflict

Though conflict is inevitable, it does not have to be insurmountable. Here are 10 simple tricks to help minimize conflict in your relationship.

  1. Keep your responses short. Long replies can sound confrontational, and they invite long retorts. “I can see you’re upset,” is a better response than a long dissertation intended to calm your partner down and may be a better starting place for you both to develop a different perspective.
  2. Remember boundaries are something you set for yourself. “Setting boundaries” for your partner is manipulative and an indirect attempt at control. It’s okay to say what you can be counted on to do, or not to do, under specific circumstances, but don’t try to control your partner. You might say, for example, “If I’m worried about you, you can count on me to text you and ask if you’re okay.”
  3. Realize any accusation is a little bit true. This is a hard one, but keeping this in mind can be an effective tool. Realizing accusations typically have some truth to them is one of the best ways to avoid becoming defensive and continuing an argument. “Yes, I do leave my clothes on the floor once in a while,” will deescalate a fight faster than “That’s not true! I never leave anything on the floor!”
  4. Ask for what you do want, not for what you don’t. It’s impossible to get the absence of something. It’s much easier for your partner to give you something you do want. “I’d really like to talk about this when we take our walk,” is better and more specific than “I don’t want to talk about this in front of the kids.”
  5. Stay on topic. Sometimes it may be hard to figure out what the topic really is, but do the best you can. If you stick with your primary complaint and don’t stray into unrelated issues, your chances of resolution are much better. Redirecting the conversation back to the original topic can take practice. Remember to do it with kindness, not agitation. “I think you were upset about me not sending back that RSVP card. Let’s figure out a solution for that now, and we can discuss my anxiety about being with your family later.”
  6. Develop a vocabulary for feelings. A story with a lot of facts is not a great way to get your partner to understand how you’re feeling. Sometimes the people who have the most words in an argument have the most impoverished vocabularies for their emotions. “I feel like you’re not listening,” is not a feeling statement. It’s an accusation. “I feel bad” is not a very clear description of your internal state. Print out a list of feelings from the internet and refer to it often. Build a vocabulary of emotions. Sad, lonely, frustrated, annoyed, ambivalent, agitated, relieved, disregarded, embarrassed, scared, worried, etc. are good words to convey emotions.
  7. Switch perspectives. Putting words to what your partner doesn’t think you understand can be a very powerful way to express compassion and lower the chances of conflict. Rather than explaining your side over and over, instead try saying something like, “It seems like you don’t think I understand how overwhelmed you feel. It seems like you don’t think I understand how frustrated you are with me. It seems like you don’t believe I understand how hard you’ve been trying.” (Don’t say, “I understand how hard you’ve been trying, but…” That’s talking about yourself. Saying what you understand, followed by “but” effectively disqualifies any compassion you might have shown.)
  8. Avoid speaking with contempt. This is one of the most damaging forms of communication in a relationship. Dr. John Gottman’s research points out contempt is one of the best predictors of divorce. Don’t resort to character assassination (i.e., “You’re just a loser,” “You’re just like your mother,” “You’re an embarrassment.”)
  9. Writing is as good as talking. Not everyone is able to articulate clearly in a fast-paced discussion. Some people need time to think and gather their thoughts. Texting, e-mailing, messaging, or writing notes are valid ways of continuing a difficult conversation. If you need to pause an argument, let your partner know when you will get back to them. “I can’t continue this right now. I promise I will text you my thoughts after dinner.”
  10. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you mess up, forgive yourself. Remember that every day you’re doing the best you can figure out how to do. Keep your internal dialogue kind and positive. We can’t give away anything we don’t already have. You won’t be able to say nice, respectful things to your partner if you’re not first saying them to yourself.

Beth sat in the bathroom. The quiet helped her put words to her thoughts. The locked door gave her a sense of seclusion. She revised the text one more time.

“It seems like you don’t think I understand how frustrated you are when I’m a little late. I sometimes feel scared, too, when we’re not as close as I’d like, and I know the kids can be exhausting. We’ll get through this stressful time. It’s not forever. I’d like it if you’d call or text when you’re worried about me. I promise I’ll respond right away. Please let me know if there’s anything else you don’t think I understand about how you’re feeling. I love you!”

She pressed “send.”

References: 

  1. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2004). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Harmony Books.
  2. Feelings inventory. (2005). Center for Nonviolent Communication. Retrieved from https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/feelings_inventory_0.pdf

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Millie

    Millie

    August 23rd, 2017 at 2:03 PM

    It is all well and good that we know the things to do and not to do but in the heat of the moment I struggle because I usually react and say things before I even take a moment to breathe. Usually if I can just make myself pipe down for a minute and count to 10, I have a much better handle on what I would like to say as well as a much firmer grasp on how to say it without hurting too many feelings along the way.

    Be with someone who can encourage that little bit of time that you might need to gather your thoughts.

  • Yvonna

    Yvonna

    August 24th, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    Such a cliche but it is always helpful to repeat back to your partner what you think that you have heard so that there can be clarification or confirmation on the spot.

  • h Marie

    h Marie

    August 25th, 2017 at 2:43 PM

    When both partners are on the same page with each other, it can be a whole lot easier to get things back on track. It is when you have such divergent thinking styles and conversational styles and needs that things can get off track in a real big hurry. This is usually not the fault of one or the other, but over time in so many relationships it just seems to happen.

  • Zack

    Zack

    August 29th, 2017 at 3:18 PM

    I am so much better writing down my thoughts and feelings than I ever have been verbalizing them. My girlfriend always tells me just come on, let’s talk it out, and while I would love to feel comfortable with that, there is something that holds me back.

    But when I write, the words always just flow from me. I have a much better sense of what I want to say even if I can just write it down first. I don’t even mind if I had to read it out loud to her, it just makes me feel like I really know what I am going to say and how I can share it with her.

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