When we first become involved in a new relationship, we only share the bright shiny sides of our personalities. Smiles, loving gazes, hot sex, and roses too, please!
We do our best to hide our warts. Remember the “no passing gas” phase? That’s usually short-lived before one slips out and laughter ensues.
As time goes on, other aspects of our less than perfect selves start to emerge. Foul moods, bumbling mistakes, insecurities, and annoying habits bring us back down to Earth. Yes, we are all human and therefore we are all imperfect.
Usually, sometime within our first year, moods start rubbing up against each other and someone gets hurt feelings. At junctions of decision-making, we find out we have differing opinions on how things should go and our expectations collide.
Having disagreements like these doesn’t necessarily indicate you are incompatible because everyone has them. What matters is how you handle those conflicts.
Of course, this stage isn’t as much fun as infatuation was, but it’s actually more valuable. Why? Because what you and your partner do when conflicts arise will tell you whether you have potential for a lasting love or not.
Below are some reactive patterns that make conflict difficult, followed by some healthier, more responsive behaviors that build trust. The next time you experience conflict with your partner, notice how you each react. Then use the tips below to iron out any rough spots, so your relationship can continue to thrive.
Reactive Patterns that Escalate Conflict
Some of us are so conflict-avoidant that we’ll do almost anything to avoid butting heads with our partner. We smooth things over, minimize, introduce diversions, or even tell white lies to keep issues from bubbling up. But when problems get swept under the rug like this, they never get resolved, so patterns don’t change and the relationship can suffer.
Passive aggressive behaviors can start to occur with this pattern. One partner acts like everything is okay but then keeps sneaking in subtle digs. Aggravating behaviors keep eating away at what could be happier times, but no one says anything. It’s the grin-and-bear-it attitude!
Conflict avoidance tendencies are one of the best reasons to welcome conflict and face it head on. The more practice you get with healthy conflict resolution, the less afraid of conflict you will become.
No one can get around this one. Being self-protective is conditioned into us from an early age. Remember the “you are too, I am not” disagreements from preschool? As we get older, we continue down that same path, but with supposedly more reasoned arguments.
Defensive reactions are harmful because they make the other person feel unheard and uncared for. If both partners dig in their heels, resolution becomes impossible and issues can continue to escalate, sometimes for days.
See the tips below for how to catch yourself the next time you get up in arms about something your spouse seems to be accusing you of.
Stonewalling can take the form of slammed doors, unreturned calls or texts, full on ghosting, or sticking around but ignoring your partner. People who are emotionally sensitive often resort to this tactic because when conflicts arise, they quickly become overloaded.
Stonewallers experience a fight or flight reaction, and their flight pattern of choice can be refusing to deal with an emotional issue, at least at the moment. Meanwhile, the person left behind ends up feeling abandoned. This only makes matters worse since most conflicts are really misdirected pleas for more love and understanding.
It’s not wrong to take space when you can’t cope, but it can be done in a way that respects the other person. See Stay on the Same Team below for how to do it.
Responsive Patterns that Resolve Conflict
We all think we’re good listeners, but are we really? Many of us are just waiting to speak when we should be listening, and that’s especially true when emotions are running amok.
There are two things to remember when you feel triggered. First, take a few moments to breathe in some long, deep breaths and then exhale slowly. Slow deep breathing turns on the parasympathetic nervous system — the calming one — and turns off the fight or flight reactions characterized by shallow breathing. After taking this breather, you will be ready to really listen.
Second, after your partner speaks, show you have heard them by mirroring what they said back to them, incorporating some of their words. Then ask some leading questions to encourage them to speak more. When they feel satisfied that you understand their side, it’s your turn. Take another few breaths before you begin.
Stay on the Same Team
It’s so easy to fall into adversarial patterns during conflicts, but a you-versus-me approach will only make matters worse. That is not what either of you signed up for!
Relationships are all about teamwork and that means during conflict too. Think of a relationship as having three components: you, me, and us. Staying on the same team involves looking for compromises that will satisfy the us.
While negotiating compromises, show empathy by letting your partner know you sincerely want to find a solution that works for both of you. There’s a song lyric that goes, “When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.” Adopt this attitude to keep resentments from building in your relationship.
If you tend to be a stonewaller, it’s fine to ask for a time out, but also commit to returning at a specific time to work on conflict resolution when you both feel calmer.
Acknowledge, Own and Apologize
Feelings can get hurt during conflict and linger even after reaching a compromise. Acknowledging any lack of kindness that occurred will help repair any damage that’s been done. Owning a misunderstanding or foul mood also pays off quickly.
When you are at fault, a simple, sincere apology will do wonders. Incorporate the words you heard from your partner earlier for extra effectiveness. If your partner’s love language is physical touch, now is a great time to add that nurturing component with a hug.
It’s also a good idea to appreciate both your partner and yourself for the efforts you put forth to resolve your conflict in a healthy way. Recognizing our relational strengths reinforces awareness and supports the shared intention to keep building a mutually satisfying life together.
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