Of all the important realities those in couples, romantic relationship, and other relationship formations, should be prepared to face, the fact that conflict is inevitable may be number one (or at least in the top 5). No matter how much happiness and love exist between people, eventually, some issue or event will arise that will end in a disagreement, argument or altercation of some sort. However, the manner in which they engage in a conflict can make the difference between a parting of ways and a healthy enduring relationship. Here are 5 important tips to keep in mind as you figure out how to “fight right”.
1. Don’t engage when very upset - It may seem counter-intuitive to wait until all parties are relatively calm to reason things out. Some might ask “Why would you want to bring an issue back up after things seem ok, again?” The answer has everything to do with the nervous system and the biological response to situations that humans perceive to be threatening. These responses are commonly called FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE. When most people hit a high level of emotionality, something like a switch can flip inside. If this happens, it can become challenging to access the part of the brain that helps to reason, compromise and understand others. Here’s the good news! It is possible to intentionally flip that switch back over. Employing self-soothing activities such as moving the body, intentional breathing, being in nature or with a loved pet, etc., may help to regain neurological stability and approach a conflict from a place of collaboration and empathy.
2. Try to address concerns ASAR (As Soon As Reasonable) - Letting a resentment or hurt stew tends to amplify the sense of separation. Instead, honor the mutual sense of connection by making time to work through difficult issues. Holding on to hurt without processing with you partner/s can lead to compacted resentment and it tends to be easier to work through problems while they are current. Once everyone involved is in a place to give and receive feedback in a collaborative way (See Tip 1), prioritize creating an environment where a productive conversation can occur. If someone needs to step away during the conversation to regulate themselves, set a timeframe to at least check back in. In this case, it’s best if the party who needs to self-soothe, takes this time to actively work on reaching a state where productive communication is again possible. Since it is common for feelings connected to fear of abandonment to arise from a very primal place in the one/s left behind, keep lines of communication open while taking space. This could look like “I’m noticing, I am having a lot of intense feelings right now, I think I need 20 minutes to go take a walk. Can we check in when I get back? Hopefully then I’ll be ready to come back to this topic with more clarity.” This way, space is created to regulate the self, regain a balanced state and still respect the feelings (needs) of all involved. For very complicated situations, another bracket of time may be needed, however keeping in touch during times of independent self-soothing will help to protect the connection until the conversation can be resumed.
3. Lay down ground rules - Some people in relationship choose to follow formal models like Non-Violent Communication (http://www.nvc.com) and rules from the Gottman Method (http://www.gottman.com/couples/) Approaches such as these generally provide strategies that support productive communication. However, even without input from the experts, it can be helpful to decide together agreements like no cursing, no yelling in front of the kids or no serious issue brought up right before bed, in the car, on the phone, etc. Just as human beings each hold a unique set of needs, the needs of each intimate network together is just as diverse. Expect to tailor the underpinnings of your relationship so it has the best fit possible for the people in it. It is best to approach this process with an understanding that compromise on both sides may be necessary. Example; Pat comes from a background where swearing is considered an acceptable way to emphasize intense feelings. For Mel, any swearing, even when not directed at them leads to an experience of hostility. For Pat, refraining from swearing while processing a conflict with Mel will be a benefit since receptivity in a partner will make processing a conflict more productive. On the other hand, it is advantageous for Mel to understand that Pat is changing an engrained behavior. Being patient if a swear occasionally escapes when Pat is emotional will help keep the focus on the task of reaching resolution.
4. Find your accountability - With the exception of situations involving intimate partner violence, there is always a way to focus on personal accountability even if it is only the accountability to ones own values. As a baseline, each person’s choices and behavior stand alone. One person’s inappropriate behavior, does not justify similar behavior in another people. To take a further step into accountability, realize that you are a participant in this current dynamic and the more you look for what you can own, the sooner you can move yourself to a more positive and collaborative place. As a counterbalance and to keep at the hard task of accountability, it helps to remember that even if your partner is experiencing you a certain way it does not determine your original intention. It is helpful to know how one’s behavior impacts close others however it cannot change the internal quality of a person.
5. Trust your partner and the shared connection - If you genuinely suspect that your partner is trying to hurt you intentionally, it’s time to assess the relationship and at least seek additional support*(see note below) However, if it is possible to trust the positive intent of a partner, bring that perspective to the conversation. Remember that all parties ultimately desire harmony. Trust that, despite what may be happening currently, moving to a place of receptivity is a shared goal. There just may be a need for some time to work through feelings about the events that have occurred or the feedback given. Shame, guilt, regret or anxiety can create powerful reactions that make the task of collaboration much more difficult. It is even possible for the source of a strong emotional reaction to also be connected to past emotional wounds along with the current issue or feedback. When this is the case, attempt to bring an extra dose of understanding for the person struggling instead of reacting defensively or escalating the volatility. In a reciprocally supportive dynamic, each person will take turns acting as the emotional anchor. When compassion increases, the chance of regaining feelings of connection becomes more attainable.
These suggestions are not presented in order of importance since each relationship and each conflict are unique. The order of importance may fluctuate with the situation. Please remember when reading suggestions of this kind, be gentle with yourself. Many of us did not have healthy communication modeled to us or taught to us. However, a willingness to learn makes growth possible. We are all human and even the most practiced communicators will have slip-ups. If you miss the mark, remember everyone makes mistakes sometimes, apologize and try again.
*If you are in immediate danger from someone in your household call 911. If you need support to leave an abusive situation or are wondering if what you are experiencing is abuse contact 1-800-799-7233 or go to https://www.thehotline.org/ for support.