When a partner needs space and we need intimacy; when we’re spontaneous and they like to plan; 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. 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? Will you avoid bringing up unrelated incidents from the past to hammer home a point? 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? 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?
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:
- Pay attention to your body. Pay attention to the movement of energy in and around your body. Notice the 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 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 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. Turn 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.