Every relationship has its inevitable difficulties, and conflict goes with the territory. Yet you might avoid conflict because it may have signified the end of a relationship or marriage—or led to bitter disputes during your childhood or adulthood. Avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. In fact, bottling up negative thoughts and feelings does not give your partner a chance to change his or her behavior.
During tough conversations, it’s helpful to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and important ones. Many experts point out that bickering can lead to the demise of a relationship. It’s like chronic warfare that erodes the quality of a relationship.
That said, it’s important to adopt a positive mindset about discussing difficult topics. When dealing with differences with your partner, the key is to listen attentively, understand each other’s perspective, curb defensiveness, and to stop criticizing and blaming each other.
For instance, Tara and Conner have been married for six years and are raising three children in a blended family. Over the last few years, Tara has become resentful of Conner who signed up to take graduate level courses without informing her. From her perspective, Conner has been increasingly detached from family activities and household chores since he works as a teacher, attends graduate school, and returns home late. During a recent session in my office, they had this adversarial conversation which left them both feeling defeated and bitter.
Tara put it like this: My anger and resentment started to mount when you told me two months after Michael was born that you signed up for classes without telling me. You were literally gone three nights a week and barely helped out with him or the house. I can’t trust you anymore since you kept this secret. If You hadn’t lied to me, I might feel differently.”
Conner explains, “I understand how bad this sounds but I needed to get my degree at this point because I was burnt out with teaching and wanted to have the opportunity to be a principal of my own school. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d object and we’d argue. You often criticize me because I don’t do enough but I’m going to school to help our family get ahead.”
What Tara and Conner need is a way to stop blaming each other and to eliminate their pattern of trying to prove a point. The first step toward changing this negative pattern of relating is awareness. Secondly, they need to embrace the mindset that working together is more important than being right.
It’s tempting to launch into expressing anger and to get into the attack mode when you feel hurt or frustrated. However, you’ll accomplish more and improve your communication if you’re vulnerable and tell your partner what you need in a positive way. For instance, if Tara says to Conner “I would appreciate it if you’d cook dinner tonight,” this “I” statement would be more effective than saying, “You never help out around the house,” a “You” statement that sparks his defensiveness.
In intimate relationships, one of the biggest challenges couples face is how to be vulnerable when they approach difficult conversations without getting defensive and to avoid getting into a pattern of attack-defense. If this pattern continues over time, it can diminish love and respect between partners.
4 Ways to Curb Defensiveness:
- Keep a calm composure: While it’s natural to raise your voice and get agitated when you feel attacked, lower your voice and adopt a friendlier tone. If you feel yourself taking things personally, press the pause button and suggest a 10 to 15-minute break to your partner before continuing a conflictual conversation. You might say “I’m trying to listen but I can feel myself getting defensive. Can we start this conversation again in 15 minutes?
- Listen to your partner’s side of the story and validate them. Instead of focusing on your own agenda and the points you want to get across, ask your partner what is bothering them and really listen before responding. When you respond, validate their perspective and use a soft start-up such as “I value your input and I’d love to hear more from you.” Be sure to use good eye contact and reassuring touch to comfort your mate.
- Focus on the issues at hand. When you focus on changing your partner, you miss the opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You are no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the issues at hand to meet both of your needs. Don not throw in the kitchen sink or rehash baggage. Stay in the moment and resist the urge to bring up old issues or touch on your partners “raw spots.” Use “I” statements and focus on expressing your feelings in a way that invites your partner to communicate non-defensively, rather than pushing them away.
- Take responsibility. If you focus more on your part of the problem, you’ll be less likely to point your finger at your partner or take things personally. Reflect on how your words and actions might make your partner feel and let him or her know that you own your part in a disagreement. For instance, Tara could have used an “I” statement such as, “When I hear you saying you’ll be working more, it makes me feel concerned that you won’t be available to help me.” Apologize if you have done something to hurt your mate—even if it was not intentional. Be brief and to the point without making excuses. For instance, Conner might simply say “I am sorry for keeping a secret from you. I love you and won’t do it again.” By taking responsibility for his part in the dispute, even just a small piece, this will validate Tara’s feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow them both to move on.
According to relationship expert Dr. Patricia Love, it’s important to stop keeping score and to try not to win every argument, even when you are in the right. Instead, Love says, “think of winning an unofficial contest I like to call ‘Who’s the Bigger Person?’ Resolving Conflicts is about who wants to grow the most and what’s best for your relationship.”
Be sure to pay close attention to your reactions the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner. Examine the part you play in disputes and remember that competitiveness stands in the way of resolving conflicts. Keep in mind Dr. John Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions during times of conflict with your partner—meaning for every negative interaction you need five positive ones. For those couples who ended up divorced in his study, the ratio was three positive comments for every four negative ones.
Since we all have flaws, focus on not attacking or getting defensive because you will only push your partner away. The next time you feel upset at your partner, examine your own thoughts and responses—before you point out his or her faults—if you want your relationship to endure the test of time.
Photo—Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr