Conflict & Couples - How do we get rid of it?

Conflict in all types of relationships is absolutely inevitable. Yet it is the main issue behind relationship dissatisfaction. So, how do we get rid of this issue?

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Well, we actually don’t!

Yes that’s right. We don’t “get rid of” it because conflict is always going to happen, so, like learning to walk for the first time so we can deal with the world around us, we need a bit of learning to manage the way conflict occurs.

Because not one of us is born the same as another – even identical twins are shaped differently by life experiences and genes as they age – there will be disagreements, since no two of us are the same.

Dr John Gottman puts it very simply - “there are two brains, there are going to be differences”.  Trying to get rid of, or avoiding disagreements is like trying to make an itchy mosquito bite better by scratching it as much as we can. It generally makes it worse. So how do we accept conflict and make things work?

When we meet a person who sparks our souls enough for us to want to hold on to that potentially forever, there are so many positive, but also different qualities we are inheriting along with that new flame.

Some people may have past pains, historical traumas, and triggers, while others might have unhelpful ways of going about things that are different to ours. We inherit perpetual problems, plus solvable problems, when we start a relationship and stay in it for some time.

Most of us try to fix all these problems in each other over time. But only 30% of issues in couples are actually resolvable, with the remaining 70% being related to perpetual problems, which aren’t resolvable over time.

So now we have perpetual problems, inevitable conflict, why would anyone want to be in a relationship at all?!

It is important to remember that nobody is perfect, so trying to fix and change everything to be 100% flawless can become quite an effortful struggle, since you’re never going to get there. 

The first step to dealing with conflict effectively is to understand your partner, coming  from a place of acceptance that problems and differences are inevitable and not the end of the world.

Secondly, talking with your partner about disagreements in a kind, accepting, warm and empathic manner ensures that even during an argument, you feel safe, calm and secure, knowing that everything in your relationship is still alright.

Effective conflict management isn’t about holding things in and bottling them up.  It is about communicating in a way that is respectful, kind and assertive. Without using blame, criticism, or judgment.

It’s about complaining rather than blaming, using statements that start with “I” instead of “you”, saying what has happened rather than judging what has happened, whilst remaining, kind, polite, and appreciative.

Imagine if your current or a past partner said to you “You never listen to what I am saying, you’re always thinking about work and I am sick of it, all you care about is yourself and you never think about what I want”. How would that make you feel? Pretty awful I would imagine.

But what about if they said to you “Hey, I would really like to tell you about my day today, it was pretty tough. It looks like you’ve been pretty busy today and I appreciate how hard you work for our family. Could we have a cup of tea tonight for an hour? I’d really love to talk to you, it makes me feel so much better when I do”.

It is quite incredible how differently we would feel if our partner tried the second approach.  We call this second option “softened start-up”. A softer way to start up a discussion about something that has upset us.

It is always OK to feel any emotion we are feeling, but the way we go about dealing with that emotion is up to us to decide.

So, when problems are solvable, great tools to use are things like softened-start up. Other tools include:

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  • accepting influence or feedback from each other without getting defensive;

  • noticing and responding to attempts to “repair” the disagreement, for example recognizing your partner saying “slow down, tell me again what you mean?”, as an attempt to de-escalate the emotion and repair; and

  • compromise

When the problems are perpetual, or not solvable, it’s simply about talking about it, from a place of understanding, and positive emotion. Things like being:

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  • interested

  • affectionate

  • empathic

  • warm

  • humourous

These all help with “dialoging” (or talking) about problems that will pop up sometimes, but aren’t going to go away.  This is how these perpetual problems eventually become accepted in the relationship.

Conflicts really don’t have to stay difficult and stuck forever. A lot of positive emotion in interaction can go a long way – in fact, in a study done by Drs John & Julie Gottman, it was the only factor among newlyweds that predicted couple stability and couple happiness over time!