Conflict and disagreement are inevitable in relationships. Anger is a natural emotion, and disagreements can be a healthy sign of difference.
Conflict usually occurs because certain needs are not being met – either within the relationship or outside of it. The object of conflict management is to ask for those needs to be met in a way that does not damage your relationship.
Here are some tips that may be useful to manage anger and reduce conflict in relationships.
1. TAKE TIME-OUTS. Disagreements are best dealt with when both parties are in a non-aroused state. Whenever possible, take a time-out to calm your body down. Techniques include breathing, relaxation and visualisation. Strong emotions of anger, grief or anxiety do not make it easy for us to access our rational faculties and so there is little benefit of trying to address disagreements in this condition – it often just escalates into insults and unintentional dagger-throwing. Both of you should respect each other’s need for a time-out. It’s not running away from the issue, but preparing yourself to deal with it in more receptive mode.
2. REFLECT INTERNALLY. Check in on yourself and ask yourself what you think the issue is about. What part you are playing in this – are you misinterpreting what your partner has said? Are you in a bad mood from something else? Are you being reasonable here? Ask yourself if you think it is an issue that is important enough to stand your ground on – can you let this go without resentment or do you need to ask your partner for something? Sometimes we argue out of habit and because it connects us (even though it is negative, at least we both get attention). Ask yourself whether you really need to take up this issue. If so, think about what exactly you need to ask for.
3. EXPLAIN. Avoid presuming that your partner should know what is wrong. Empathy is an elusive concept – it is nearly impossible for another person to truly know what you are experiencing and to give you what you want. It useful if you can ask for what you need.
4. TAKE PERSPECTIVE. There is sometimes great temptation to elevate the stakes in an argument. Threats and ultimatums are damaging to the ego and chip away at the whole of the relationship. Try and keep the argument to the specific issue rather than make the whole relationship at risk. Avoid ‘if you do this one more time…’ ‘I can’t take this any more, I’m leaving’… Each of you should know that however unpleasant this disagreement is, it will not touch the relationship. If the relationship is to end, it should be decided separately to a heated argument.
5. TRY TO PERSONALIZE. The conversation is best approached from a personal angle, rather than blaming your partner. If your partner hears criticism he/she will want to defend himself/herself rather than address the issue. Try and use ‘I feel…’, ‘It hurts me when…’, ‘I would really like it if…’, rather than ‘you make me feel…’, ‘when you do that….’. Try also to avoid generalization such as ‘you always do that..’, ‘you never think…’ – it is certainly hurtful and is usually inaccurate.
6. OWN UP TO MISTAKES. It is not a weakness to accept that you have acted out of line. Owning up to faults and mistakes is helpful to both parties, so long as it is not done out of martyrdom or for manipulative effect. Apologising early can save a lot of unnecessary conflict.
7. INCLUDE SOMETHING POSITIVE. When putting your point across, it brings good results if you can refer to something positive as well. The discussion is unlikely to be rosy, but if you can draw on aspects that you do like, it will make your partner less tense and combative. Putting across negative points in a humorous way can also work. Humour doesn’t mean your partner is trivialising the issue, rather it makes it easier for him/her to confront an issue.
8. FOCUS ON THE PRESENT. By clinging to the painful memory of a past event (no matter how distressing it was) you are impeded from living in the present. You are entitled to a period of grieving and are allowed to make your needs clear to your partner. Long-held resentment will tarnish a relationship. Try not to use past events as ammunition. Even though it might be a recurring issue, the current disagreement should address the here and now.
9. AIM TO BE HAPPY, NOT TO BE RIGHT. The purpose of approaching conflict is to get to maximum results for both of you. When you argue to win (by point-scoring), the gain is short-term and mostly leaves you feeling worse. When you argue to ask for your needs to be met, it is still unpleasant, but you are working to building better conditions for both of you.
10. AGREE TO DISAGREE. You are entitled to ask your partner to help meet your needs, but it is not your job to get your partner to come around to seeing the world as you do. It is fruitless to try to convert them to your philosophy of life. Differences should be embraced – including different sets of interests and activities. Finally, it is not up to your partner to fulfil all of your needs, they also have to be met internally and with other people (family, friends).
Note: The above tips represent a set of tools to manage anger and reduce conflict in relationships. They are not easy to incorporate, but with practice, your relationship will hopefully improve. If these self-help tips do not have any effect, or seem too difficult to adopt, you may benefit from more in-depth psychotherapy to examine the underlying causes of your anger (which may be related to personality difficulties and earlier history). If you or your partner’s anger escalates into physical or emotional abuse, then it is strongly advised that you seek help from a third party or external organisation.
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