Often in relationships and marriages we can find ourselves having the exact same heated conversation again and again. It’s as if we think the more we fight about something the more our chances of finding answers- instead we end up exhausted and cut off from the very person we want to feel close to.
[If you've found this article but aren't repeating the same argument, just fighting too much in general, you might want to read our helpful guide to productive arguments first].
So what do we do when we have a conflict on repeat in our relationship? Well, it’s more a case of what we need to not do.
Here are seven things to drop now from relationship conflicts to create room for real communication and ways forward at last.
1. The Wall of Words.
Once relationship conflict starts it can be like floodgates have opened, as we talk over each other, interrupt, and spar to get our arguments in. But there is no timer on countdown, so what’s the hurry? Slow down and do that one magical thing we all tend to forget about when we enter the conflict zone- listen.
And really listen, not just with half of your brain as the other half manically plots what you are going to say next. Try repeating what they are saying in your head, putting all your focus on your partner. You’ll be amazed at how much they might open up to you given the gift of your undivided attention.When they have said what they need to say, instead of jumping in right away, consider trying a beat of silence. It gives everyone a chance to collect themselves and breathe, and sometimes a moment of quiet while looking into each other eyes can communicate more than a wall of words ever could.
2. The Past.
We’ve all done it- caught up in a relationship conflict and sensing we’re losing, we go for the kill by bringing in another similar ‘crime’ our partner has committed in the past. If we are upset they didn’t congratulate us on a recent win at work, we bring up a time a year ago they didn’t seem to care about a promotion. We can do this every time we fight about something, creating a giant snowball effect until what was really just a niggle becomes a massive issue spanning our entire relationship.
If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that none of us can change the past. So bringing up old disagreements during a fight simply makes your partner feel trapped and helpless. Drop what’s been and gone and try focussing on the present issue causing your relationship conflict. It’s the only one you do have the power to change.
Don’t bring other people into the conflict either. It makes your partner feel ganged up on and isn’t fair on them, or the third other party who you are speaking on behalf of.
3. Invented Intentions.
When we have spent a substantial amount of our lives with someone, we can assume we know them so well we forget that they are another person with a mind of their own. And one of the main things we assume is that we know the other person’s intentions. We assume they want to discuss money with us because they think we need to work harder, or that they want to fight about the kids because they don’t think we are being strict enough.
The truth is that most of us don’t have such clear intentions, and the intentions we do have tend to be about ourselves, not others. Drop inventing intentions for other people, because you can’t possibly know what they themselves are still figuring out and because it’s a one way road to relationship conflict.
And if you force intentions on someone, you also force them into a corner! Stay open to positive outcomes instead- perhaps your partner wants to talk about the kids because he doesn’t feel he’s doing enough, or he wants to discuss money because he secretly wants to downsize.
4. The Blame Game.
A relationship can only work if its about mutual responsibility. Blame is instead about being right or wrong, which means one person wins, and the other loses. Do you really want your partner to feel like a loser? Is that ever going to lead to greater trust and understanding between you? Or just to endless relationship conflict?
Life is a perspective, anyway- we all see things in different ways. If you are standing facing a statue, and someone else is standing behind a statue, is it really worth your effort to yell at them for hours for not seeing the nose that you see? Stop wasting precious energy deciding what is true and focus on what is important, which is how you can resolve your relationship conflict in a way that works for both of you.
And if you hear yourself throwing around the word ‘wrong’, you can be sure you’ve gone back to the Blame Game. Stop, take a deep breath, and start again from a kinder place.
5. Treating Feelings as Gospel.
Feelings are invaluable markers for where we need to examine what is and isn’t working for us in life, and in a therapeutic setting feelings are important things to explore. What’s so great about feelings is that they are flexible and within your power to change and control.The trouble is that when it comes to relationship conflict we can suddenly wield those very same feelings as completely inflexible ‘facts’ and act as if we don’t have any control of them at all. Suddenly we are unhappy, it’s all their fault, and it’s never going to change.
Feelings are not gospel, and they are not someone else’s responsibility. In the middle of a relationship conflict with your partner accept that you are a mess of feelings that you will need to deal with yourself later, admit those feelings aren’t facts, then aim to get beneath the feelings to what the issue really is and how you can fix it.
5. Accusatory Phrases.
There are some words that have no place in a useful discussion- and they are words that are exaggerations or judgements. ‘Always’ and ‘Never’ are two such words. They serve as blocks, not giving others any room to negotiate or change. And they usually come after the word ‘you’. When two people are having a relationship conflict ‘you’ statements come across as blame- ‘you always get so angry’, ‘you never listen to me’. If you hear yourself doing this, stop and rephrase to an ‘I’ statement that is exaggeration free. “I feel that you often get angry.’ ‘I feel that I’m not being listened to very much these days’.
‘Why’ is another word that just serves to make another person feel they are being accused and judged. Try questions that begin with ‘What’ and ‘How’ instead, they are more open-ended. “What could we do to stop you from spending all the household budget by mid week” or “How could we make our budget last longer” sounds a lot more useful then “Why do you spend our household budget too fast every single week”.
Really? Drop forgiveness? Well, yes- from the conflict, not the relationship. Forgiveness is essential between two people who love each other, but when we are in the middle of a heated conflict saying ‘fine, I forgive you’ is rarely how we really feel, and is often said in way to make the other person feel little. It’s ‘false forgiveness’, and comes across as, ‘you are wrong and I am right, therefore from my position of superiority, I bequeath forgiveness on you.’ Not great, is it? Save forgiveness for later, when you are both calm and feeling more understanding.
And while you are at it, drop the sidekick of false forgiveness- punishment. If you find yourself saying things to your partner that sound like something you’d say to a naughty child, you’ve gone into punishment mode. “Well then I am not going to cook for you for the rest of the week” or “If that’s the case you can go to the event by yourself” are examples of punishing your partner. Most of the time when we go into punishing mode we are the ones who end up losing out, sabotaging something we actually enjoy in our effort to deny the other of something.
Conflict in relationships is an opportunity for growth. When you’re able to resolve relationship conflict it builds trust and security. So don’t bring an energy of defeat and pointlessness to a conversation, bring an attitude of hope and an interest in strengthening what you have instead.
Unable to Escape Relationship Conflict and Need Help?
If despite your best efforts your relationship is unable to progress and you are having the same conflict again and again and are feeling hopeless, sometimes it is time to add something after all- an outside perspective. Couples Counselling involves a qualified professional who creates a safe and objective environment to discuss your relationship conflicts. It can help with commitment issues, power imbalances, and intimacy issues amongst other things. Read more about couples counselling here.
Has this article helped you? Thought of another tip on handling relationship conflict you’d like to share? We love hearing from you. Comment below and join the conversation.