Conflict comes with the territory of any long-term relationship. It’s only natural that when you merge your life with another human being—someone with different tastes, opinions, habits, and worldviews—you will eventually rub each other the wrong way.
Sometimes the conflict is light and superficial, and you can deal with it quickly and without building up any residue in your relationship. But sometimes conflicts can simmer into a boil and you find yourselves at an impasse. You love each other and want the relationship to continue, but you’re not sure how to resolve your conflict. Now what?
Many of the couples that come to me for relationship counseling are at such an impasse. One of the first things I suggest they do, at first with me and then on their own, is to have what I call a “Conflict talk.” This is a conscious effort made by both parties to illuminate through each partner’s experiences the troublesome dynamic that has developed between them. By getting everything out on the table in a positive and supportive way, they often can begin the process of repairing the wound in their relationship.
While no situation is the same, and conversations are anything but formulaic, here’s the general process that I recommend people use to work through a conflict:
- First and foremost, stay positive with your partner as much as possible. Focus on the fondness and admiration that you both feel for one another—the foundation of love below the conflict. This creates a strong ground for you to stand on as you move through your issues together.
- Start a conflict talk gently. “Honey, I know you’ve been working hard to remember to do the yard work, but the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a lot more football watching and a lot less grass mowing.” You’ll notice how gentle humor helps a lot. This is not cutting humor where we contemptuously humiliate or use disgusted tones, but engaging humor that makes our spouse smile.
- If your spouse is the one who initiates a conflict talk, respond gently—“I don’t like how you remind me so much about house jobs on the weekend, but I know I space out and you have to say something.” You might even throw in a little light humor of your own. “I thought you loved it when I sat around watching football all day.”
- As you move through your talk, both of you need to feel that your desires and feelings are being heard and validated. Heard and validated sounds something like, “I know the lawn looks terrible and I’ve slacked off on mowing.” “I know I ask you to do a lot of repairs and maintenance around the house during the weekend when you want to relax and have fun.” As elementary as it sounds, this reminds your partner that you care for them and for what’s important to them.
- After you talk, make sure you track and acknowledge the progress you’ve made, even if it’s only small. “Thank you for mowing the lawn today.” “I appreciate the fact that you haven’t asked me to spend the whole weekend fixing up the house.” Most couples’ issues are never fully resolved, but happy couples get better at managing them and making progress.
- Finally, at the end of the process, you both should feel affectionate connection. This is crucial! Feeling affectionate connection is not pretending to feel affectionate connection (though sometimes you need to start there–you know, fake it till you make it), it is actually feeling warmth towards your partner and sharing it with a hug, caress, or heartfelt “I love you!” or “You’re wonderful!”
Again, there are infinite variations of the process above. The most important thing is that you make the effort to communicate with each other in a way that is transparent, honest, open, and supportive. This re-ingnites the foundation of trust that your relationship is based upon!