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Healthy Partner Conflict Resolution When You Live With Kids

Part II: Model partner conflict resolution that teaches kids essential lessons.

In our last post, we discussed 5 of the 12 steps to take to model handling disagreements in a relationship when you have kids. In this post, we identify the last 6 steps for how you can resolve conflicts in a healthy way.

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6. Stop gathering resentments.

If you keep gathering kindling, sooner or later you’ll have a firestorm. Just let it go for now. Tell yourself, “We’ve made an agreement to talk about this later. Right now, I’m looking for solutions, not blame.”

7. Melt away the anger.

You can do this by acknowledging the anger, and then noticing the more vulnerable feelings under the anger. Are you feeling sad that you’re being taken for granted? Hurt that you’re feeling not listened to? Your partner did not cause these feelings — they’re your feelings. In fact, even if your partner said something hurtful, if you're triggered by it, then most likely you're overreacting because his or her comments are triggering something inside you that already hurts, which is almost certainly from your own childhood. If you didn't have this old issue, you would still want to solve the problem, but you wouldn't be all bent out of shape about it. You could address it without getting so triggered.

Try just dropping the storyline and letting yourself notice those emotions as sensations in your body. You'll see the upset start to melt away. That's the magic of human emotions — they just need to be acknowledged. And once those more vulnerable feelings are gone, you won’t need the anger as a defense, so it will evaporate.

Will your partner’s anger melt away, too? Sometimes. But even if it doesn’t, you’ll find you can communicate about the issue so much more effectively that things will shift more quickly.

(Warning: If you've done the work to calm down and your partner is still triggered, you will feel like you are doing all the emotional labor. You are, at this moment. If that's a pattern in your relationship, you'll want to address it. But maybe the work evens out? Like sometimes one of you is more able to stay calm, and other times it's the other one? Or he brings you coffee in bed but you're more likely to stay calmer in an argument? So get some clarity on this before you bring it up as a topic, and then, as always, express yourself with "I" statements about how you feel and what you need, rather than attacking your partner's behavior.)

8. That evening after the kids are in bed, listen to each other.

Express your upset by talking about what you feel, and what you need, without attacking your partner: “Keeping the house orderly always feels stressful and overwhelming to me… I would like to brainstorm about how we can make the whole thing easier… right now I feel very alone with it, like I have to be the one to make it all happen… I need your help... I would love to feel like we are equal partners in this.”

9. Resist trying to "win."

Remember that "expressing anger" by attacking the other person shuts down the safety, and therefore the chances of a successful resolution. Instead, notice the feelings in your body, and breathe through them, without giving in to your desire to attack. No, you're not being less "authentic." What's authentic are the tears and fears under the anger. If you can express your hurt and fear, the anger will melt away. If you really want to work things out, research shows that the best way to do that is to do a lot of listening and to express what you need without criticizing your partner.

10. The next day, be sure to share with your kids that you resolved the situation.

"Remember yesterday when I was upset that Mommy doesn't cook the things I love now that she's a vegetarian? We talked about it. We agreed that I will make whatever food I want two days a week, and she will make her own food if she doesn't want to eat what I'm making. When she cooks, she can make what she wants, and I will always at least try it so I can learn to like new things. Want to help me make dinner on Sunday? I'm thinking meatloaf!"

11. What if you can't agree?

Agree to disagree. Explain that to your kids the next day, "Remember when Dad and I disagreed about whether it's time to buy a new car? We got pretty mad, I know. But I want you to know that we're working it out. We always do, because we love each other and our relationship is more important to us than any disagreement. You know that you can be mad at someone and love them at the same time, right? We still aren't sure yet about the car. I'm worried that our car is breaking down a lot... Dad is worried about spending money on a car right now. It's a hard decision. We're going to keep talking about it. Sometimes you have to think and talk for a long time before you can make a good decision that works for everyone."

12. Keep your relationship balance positive and show kids the good things, too.

Every relationship needs at least five positive interactions to each negative interaction to stay healthy. Initiate positive interactions whenever you can, from kind comments to warm hugs. Be sure your children see your love for each other, played out in front of them on a daily basis. If you've been disagreeing a lot lately, or your kids have been witness to your yelling, step up the warm connection to an even better ratio. It's good for your relationship, too!

Hard? Yes! This takes great maturity. But this is the kind of fighting that brings you closer and makes your relationship stronger. It models conflict resolution that teaches kids essential lessons.

And it transmits one of the essential lessons about loving other humans: That it's more important to be Love, than to be Right.