Anyone who has been in love knows that all intimate partners argue. No matter how lustful, exciting, and compatible a relationship is, its partners will eventually disagree about something.
If couples can resolve these conflicts successfully, they enhance their trust and faith in each other and in their relationship. Successful conflict resolution also maintains continuous discovery, one of the most crucial aspects of good relationships. When arguments recur, and are not resolved, committed partners can be left with damaging scars that can ultimately threaten their love.
In the early weeks of love and lust, most partners often consciously or unconsciously avoid potential disagreements. Understandably, they prefer to bask in the deliciousness of assumed agreement in every area. When they do disagree, they try to make-up within the shortest possible time, keeping their separation to a minimum.
As most of us have experienced, those early super-compatible experiences must ultimately fall prey to life’s challenges. As new lovers realize that must eventually pay attention to other obligations besides absolute devotion to each other, their other needs will predictably emerge.
Some of them are obvious to anyone who has ever participated in a new love, like remembering to eat and getting enough sleep. But others are often not as clear up front. Issues like family obligations, financial commitments, vocational requirements, and social connections are often put aside in the throes of new love, but eventually must become integrated into the new relationship.
As new lover’s struggle to rebalance their priorities, they may both view them differently in what and how their resources should be distributed. After all, they have been automatically deferring to each other’s needs, most often giving them instant priority. When those commitments change over time, either partner may feel less important, and maybe become possessive or jealous. Where both lovers once felt content and confident in their right to the other’s time and attention, they may wonder now if that still exists.
These emerging conflicts can quickly take their toll. The frequency, duration, and intensity of the disputes can mount and making up can be more difficult or take longer. The couple’s once easy capacity to make up and go forward diminishes and they may find it harder to repair and heal their relationship. That cumulative damage can seriously mar their future together.
New lovers need to find ways to diffuse and resolve conflicts early in the relationship when their love is resilient. They need to practice the tools of successful conflict resolution so that it becomes second nature when more difficult disputes occur.
There are two steps that are crucial for positive outcomes after conflicts. The first is how the couple gets themselves to emotionally support each other before they attempt to resolve what is between them. They must both feel listened to and respected in order of any future negotiation to be effective.
In my four decades of working with couples, I absolutely believe that the first step is by far the most important. If intimate partners approach a disagreement from a place of mutual validation and support, they are far more likely to stay friends through the process and find ways to resolve their differences such that both feel better about each other and the relationship.
To address the way couples help one another emotionally prepare for a conflict, I’ve created an exercise to help them. It’s called “The Five-Minute Couple’s Emotional Conflict Neutralizer,” a simple and easy guide that can help new lovers get on the same team before they negotiate their disagreements.
Before you begin doing the actual exercise, each of you separately follow these three simple instructions:
Separately, take some time to recall a few repeated conflicts from your past significant relationships. List those that have repeatedly occurred, independent of which partner you were with. Focus on those that have caused the relationship to fail over time. It will be most effective if you can be honest about your own contribution. You can choose a general area like jealousy, personal availability, feeling taken advantage of or controlled, or something more specific, like not getting enough sex.
Share those memories with your partner. Help him or her to explore them, including how you remember how you behaved when you were participating in them. Explore whether either of you are acting similarly in your current relationship.
Read the steps of the exercise together. You may want to put them on a card for reference as you practice. Though they might seem easy to understand, they take practice to become intuitive and automatic. When you have completed that preparation, you’ll move to the last part of the process, which is continuing to practice the exercise you’re your unique disagreements.
The Five-Minute Relationship Conflict-Neutralizer
Pick one of your repeated past relationship conflicts that has started to show up in your present relationship. If it was present in both yours and your partner’s past relationships, it may be even more useful.
Though you know you know that this is just an exercise, don’t be discouraged if you feel a building tension or fear of hurting or being hurt. Even when both partners know they are just feigning an argument, they may still react as if it were happening.
If you feel that either of you are becoming more distressed, stop for a little while and help each other to center and breathe deeply. Remind yourselves that this is just an exercise and is going to eventually help you to stay more connected during any real future conflicts.
Decide which of you needs to go first. Generally, it works best if the partner with the most anxiety goes first. Whichever one chooses to start, keep your next five expressions to simple statements that you can express within a minute or so. Do not elaborate now:
The problem: “What is bothering me is _________.”
The fear: “What I’m afraid of is _______.”
The request: “What I need so much from you right now is _____.”
The emotional experience: “Why I am feeling this way is ______.”
The hopeful response: “What I hope will happen when I share this with you is _____.”
The listening partner must not invalidate, interrupt, deny, or try to convince you to feel anything other than what you feel or say. Instead, he or she, within the next couple of minutes, repeats to the best of memory, exactly what you have said. Acknowledgement does not require that the listener sees or feels the same, only that the statements are responded to with silent emotional support.
Then, reverse your roles. Let the other partner express his or her five statements to you, and offer the same support.
Without any verbal response or reaction to what either of you has expressed, spend the next minute in quiet reflection, looking into each other’s eyes. Ask yourself, inside, if you understand better where the other is coming from. Try not to be defensive or to take things personally. This is simply the reality of your partner and must be validated as such even if you do not see things the same way.
After both of you have completed the exercise, calmly and willingly offer whatever thoughts or behaviors you can that might ease your partner’s distress. It may be only words of comfort or a partial solution to what has been expressed and needed, but it must be authentically offered. Your partner should then do the same for you. Receive those responses without finding fault or argument. That may not be easy, but it will give the exercise more meaning.
When you are finished, do not attempt to negotiate or resolve the dispute. Let it drop for the time being and, instead, do something together that reminds you of why you still love each other. Let the good connection take precedence over the disagreement for a while so you can come back to it when you are feeling connected and safe with each other.
The exercise itself is intended to increase bonding and understanding before you attempt to resolve the conflict itself. That intimate mutual support will do wonders when you begin actual negotiating.
You’re now going to practice your own potential disputes before they happen. Using the exercise you’ve memorized, continue to work with the repeated conflicts each of you have identified from your past relationships that come to mind now, as well as those that may now be unique to your relationship. Repeat the exercise until you know you can do it, even under stress.
If you feel stuck or begin to be distressed during any of these new practice sessions, stop the exercise, tell each other how you are feeling, what memories you are evoking, and what triggers seemed to bring them about. You may need to support and comfort each other before continuing.
Many people find that practicing potentially negative disagreements ahead of time can identify issues they may have been unconsciously avoiding in their mutual desire to seem totally compatible. Those honest, early challenges are so much easier to deal with. The relationship is on solid ground and will give it the best chance of being more joyful than problematic.
Many of my patients have told me that mastering this exercise has affected every other relationship in their lives. They become more adept at recognizing and neutralizing potentially damaging conflicts before they can cause significant damage. My hope is that you will find the same confidence and comfort.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com