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James L Creighton Ph.D.
James L Creighton Ph.D.

Resolving Conflict in a Relationship

When you and your partner have different realities.

Source: Pixabay

Some couples fight a little. Some couples fight a lot. But all couples fight.

My wife and I are among the couples who fight a lot—for 52 years so far and still counting. So I’ve had a strong personal reason to study why and how couples fight. It hurts. I’d like to reduce the hurt for myself, and for others.

In my new book, Loving Through Your Differences: Building Strong Relationships from Separate Realities, I provide a synopsis of what I’ve learned so far, based on my own experience and the experience of students in classes I’ve taught around the world. Here are some of those lessons.

Separate Realities

In Loving Through Your Differences I’ve concentrated on resolving conflicts based on separate realities. What do I mean by “separate realities?” At the very simplest level, if my wife and I go to a movie, we may have very different reactions. I may enjoy the movie and think it was terrific. She may have been bored to death (car chases just don’t do it for her) and think the film was awful. It’s even possible we could get into an argument about it. In my reality, the movie was enjoyable. In hers, it was boring. If we don’t communicate carefully, that’s almost enough to start a disagreement, and that, in turn, could turn into a fight.

A disagreement over a movie is pretty unimportant. But extend the logic to other disagreements. Couples may have entirely different emotional realities concerning spending money, raising children, the courtesies that they owe each other, even the meaning of sex. The problem comes when we try to insist our friends and partners have the same reality we do. Some of the worst fights occur when people insist “my reality is right” or “there’s something wrong with you that you don’t have the same reaction I do.”

Each of us has a walking, talking emotional reality of our own. What makes perfect sense to me may seem like nonsense to you. No one else has had the same experiences, family life, or religious training. Not surprisingly, this leads us to interpret things differently. One person feels deeply hurt when an event occurs, while another person thinks nothing of it. Still another is amused by the whole thing, and another person is worried about future consequences. In other words, an event happens but we each interpret the meaning of the event in light of our own separate emotional reality.

We all know this, but we often ignore this obvious and fundamental fact of life. We insist that our version of reality is right. Then it is just a short step to thinking that anybody who doesn’t share our version of reality is a bad person, “has issues,” or lacks maturity.

The first step in dealing with a disagreement based on differing emotional realities is recognizing that there is, in fact, a difference based on differing realities—not a contest with a bad person. The strategy for resolving a conflict with a person who interprets events differently is entirely different than handling a conflict with a bad person who is out to do you in.

Resolving Conflicts Based on Separate Realities

Here are 11 behaviors that help resolve conflicts based on separate realities. Some strategies to resolve conflict you can try out yourself, whether or not your partner makes a commitment to try them. But others are more effective when both people agree to them:

  1. Agree that each person has a right to her way of seeing and experiencing things (her emotional reality) while affirming and trusting your own.
  2. Communicate your own reality without finding fault with other people’s.
  3. Listen—with both your head and heart—even though you may continue to disagree.
  4. Learn to identify behaviors that cause fights to escalate and set mutually acceptable rules to limit these behaviors.
  5. Use a problem-solving process that says, “we have a problem,” not “you are the problem.”
  6. Look for the positive good that your partner supports, even when your partner opposes what you think is important.
  7. Seek out new ways of perceiving reality you can both agree on.
  8. Reframe your life story as needed to create options and free up capabilities.
  9. Examine your self-talk to be sure it is serving you well, and re-program it when you need to.
  10. Get to know the different parts of your personality and get them talking to each other.
  11. Accept that differences can make your relationships richer.

I will address each of these principles in future posts. Together they build new ways of perceiving reality that are large enough to contain both people’s versions of the truth.


From Loving through Your Differences. Copyright ©2019 by James L. Creighton. Printed with permission from New World Library —

About the Author
James L Creighton Ph.D.

James Creighton, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship consultant who has worked with couples and conducted communications training for nearly 50 years.

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