It’s virtually inevitable that even the best close relationship will involve some degree of conflict, at least some of the time. When that happens, not only is it stressful, but if it's not handled well, it can sow the seeds for a relationship’s eventual end.
Because interpersonal conflict is such an unpleasant emotional state, most of us are programmed to avoid it. If you’ve been subjected to undue criticism from others, you may be particularly loath to get involved in arguments that can turn ugly. Studies of long-term relationships show, however, that avoidance may be an even worse way to resolve conflict. It’s almost impossible to resolve a conflict with your loved one by staying away from it completely. Whether the issue is finances, household tasks, health habits, childrearing, or sex, you’re eventually going to have to have one of those difficult conversations. But if you're armed with these 5 conflict resolution strategies, you’ll be able to take the steps to get past even what may seem like completely irreconcilable differences:
1. Recognize that avoidance won’t work.
Adhering to a cooling-off period may settle your emotions enough to approach the problem later. However, when couples constantly put their disagreements “on pause,” they run the risk of never having the chance to resolve the underlying dispute. Imagine that your partner has what you find to be an annoying habit of pocketing all the extra change in the house and spending it on Powerball tickets every week. Not only does this strike you as a waste of money, but it’s an inconvenience for you to be unable to find a quarter when you’ve run out of parking meter money. However, it seems so trivial that you say nothing at all until, one day, without any warning, you explode in a fit of rage. Now that this has escalated to an intense level, other unresolved issues might be dragged into the debate, and what started as a relatively minor difference leads to a large-scale battle that’s much harder to resolve. Instead of letting the small annoyances continue to irk you, it’s far better to come up with a strategy, using one of the tips below, to start the conversation in a more rational way.
2. Leave “but” sentences out of it.
In a “but” sentence, you try to soften the blow of bad news by prefacing it with good news. “I loved that meatloaf you cooked for me tonight, but…” Following the “but” is the critical comment such as “it could have been cooked a little more.” The hopes you raised with the pre-"but" phrase get dashed with the post-"but" conclusion.
In fact, many people use the “good news/bad news” tactic to help someone feel better about information that is certain to be upsetting. “The good news is that you’ll get to keep your tooth, but the bad news is that you’ll need a root canal,” says the dentist. In fact, I’d argue that we’re culturally conditioned to expect something bad almost every time someone uses the tone of voice that starts the “but” sentence. “I really like the way you’ve moved the furniture [pause]” may trigger an anxious wait as the listener expects the inevitable “but” to follow: “But it seems a little more crowded than it was before.” When the “but” doesn’t come, you’re pleasantly surprised. However, because this happens so rarely, the pause that follows a compliment can create stress when you’re the recipient of this kind of communication. After all, how many times has someone said to you, “Which would you rather hear first–the good news or the bad news?” Most people would rather get the bad news out of the way.
Rather than create this stress in your partner, then, consider phrasing your comments (positive and negative) in a direct manner, ending with the “good news” rather than starting with it: “I thought the meatloaf was a bit undercooked, but on the whole, I really found it to be tasty.” Now that you’re done dispensing the bad news, you can leave your partner with a positive bottom line.
In a truly difficult conversation, the stress of anticipating a “but” is even greater. It’s one thing to be talking about meatloaf, but quite another to be discussing the future of your entire relationship. By putting your concerns out there right away, you don’t leave your partner in suspense while he or she waits for the real truth to emerge.
3. Prepare the way.
Another reason not to avoid conflict is that when your feelings inevitably burst out in an uncontrolled way, neither you nor your partner will have had a chance to prepare mentally or emotionally. When something is bothering you, whether it’s a trivial housekeeping concern or a more serious relationship dispute, it’s only fair to provide your partner with an alert that there’s something you wish to discuss. How you phrase this is exceptionally important. Start by announcing what the conversation will be about, and make it clear that it’s your feelings or point of view that’s at issue: “I’d like to discuss my feelings about how often we’re having sex,” versus “I’d like to talk about the fact that we’re not having sex very often.”
Because you’re not involved in the heat of the moment, where you’ve just had a big argument about something else (the coins around the house or the meatloaf), you’ll be able to say this kindly and reassuringly rather than in a demanding and accusatory fashion. Then agree with your partner on what would be a good time and place to have this conversation. If your partner is in a hurry to get it out of the way, then make sure you’re emotionally and logistically able to do so. In other words, if you both have to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning, you might want to wait until after dinner the next day instead of at 11 p.m. the night before.
4. Agree on common goals.
In any negotiation, the outcome is much more satisfying to everyone if all parties decide on what they would find an acceptable set of results. If one of you wants the relationship to end and the other does not, then agreeing on that outcome may take up the bulk of the negotiation. However, even in this case, you can both agree on the common goals of allowing each person to “save face,” or maintaining self-respect. Or you may agree that you want to make life as manageable as possible for your children, if you have any, and other family members or friends.
It’s important, however, not to enter into your discussion having a predetermined outcome in your own mind (“I need to move out by the end of the month”). A common goal is different than a common notion of what the result should be. The more emotionally laden the conversation, the more important it is that you agree on goals that preserve each other’s emotional well-being.
5. Stay optimistic.
Feeling that the situation is hopeless is an almost certain way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you’ve decided that all is lost, you’ll invariably interpret everything your partner says with a strong dose of pessimism. Your partner may wish to discuss his or her feelings about having more (or less) sex, but it doesn’t mean that the sexual aspect of your relationship is doomed.
As you and your partner work through the details of your difficult conversation, reminding yourself that you’re in this together can help both of you remain hopeful about the end result. Even in the worst-case scenario, where the conversation ends in a breakup, by having agreed on common goals of maintaining each other’s self-regard, you’ll know that you won’t be severely injured in the process.
On the other hand, it is entirely plausible that by setting the stage for your conversation in steps 1 to 4 above, you’ll be able to resolve the dispute in a way that strengthens your bonds for whatever else will come your way. Having learned how to get through this challenge, the ones that await you will seem more manageable.
Successful conflict resolution is very similar to the ways we can best handle stresses we feel in other areas of life by using planned, problem-focused coping. In an experimental test of a DVD-based couples counseling method, a team headed by University of Zurich psychologist Guy Bodenmann (2014) found that by couples could benefit in their relationship satisfaction by working through a five hour instructional DVD that taught them basic cognitive-behavioral approaches to dealing with conflict and communication. To be sure, the couples (particularly the men) who needed the most help also improved the most. However, the bottom line was that by learning to work their way through conflict in a rational, respectful, and optaimistic manner, couples could enjoy a significant improvement in their levels of overall relationship satisfaction.
The good news about this method is (don’t worry, there’s no “but” coming) couples can and do learn to work out their differences, allowing them to achieve personal and mutual fulfillment for years and years.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Bodenmann, G., Hilpert, P., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bradbury, T. N. (2014). Enhancement of Couples’ Communication and Dyadic Coping by a Self-Directed Approach: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology, doi:10.1037/a0036356