7 Guidelines to Help Couples Manage Conflict

Terms for engagement when addressing discord

Posted Dec 12, 2016

When you form a romantic relationship, you do so with unique personalities shaped by your past. Based on previous relationships, each of you have developed ideas about how a loved one should respond to your needs, desires, and expectations.

When developing a bond, you also have well-established habits. This includes the way you manage anger when a partner appears to threaten or ignore your needs, desires, and expectations. It’s then not surprising that even the most loving relationships at times involves conflict and anger. This is especially challenging when one or both of you are prone to anger.

Sharing a commitment to value and work on preserving the relationship is key for constructively managing conflict. This isn’t always easy to remember in the throes of discord. It can, at times, be extremely challenging to be respectful and attentive with both your needs and those of your partner. This is especially the case when they seem to conflict with each other. Such conflict most frequently occurs with regard to money, sex, work, parenting, and housework.

While having occasional conflicts is common for couples, when they are frequent and intense, they can have negative impact on the mental, physical and family health of a family. The potential for such impact especially arises when one or both partners are prone to anger. Destructive anger in a relationship can lead to increased dissatisfaction, sadness and feelings of isolation, abuse and divorce.

Regardless of how you learned to deal with conflict, it is important to remember that there are specific skills that support constructive conflict management. This includes being able to recover from a conflict. In fact, research indicates that having a partner who is better at recovering from conflict is associated with experiencing more positive relationship emotions and greater relationship satisfaction (Salvatore, Luo, Steele, et. al., 2011). However, like all habits, developing these skills requires time, patience and commitment, if they are to become a natural part of your repertoire. 

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​​Guidelines for engagement when discussing a conflict

As a beginning point, remember that the worst time to argue is when you’re furiously angry–a moment when you feel threatened and your body is in high alert. During such moments, you’re more likely to focus on your own grievances and be unavailable to hear those of your partner.

The following guidelines offer a clear approach to dealing with conflict—one that’s rooted in mindfulness, self-awareness,  and compassion for yourself and your partner. I encourage you to discuss these guidelines with your partner and sign a pledge as a commitment to follow them.

1. We commit to practicing healthy anger. Healthy anger is the basis for constructively managing conflicts within your relationship. Even if just one partner is quick to react with anger, it’s to your mutual advantage to learn strategies for your own and your partner’s anger. Anger is a reaction to feeling threatened and effective communication requires a certain level of experienced safety. This involves learning specific skills regarding communication: listening skills, sharing in negotiation and problem solving skills, focusing on specific behaviors rather than global statements about your partner.

2. We will discuss our differences only when we are sufficiently calm,
 and we agree to cease the discussion if either of us feels too agitated
 or threatened. Be aware of your own level of comfort, whether you’re agitated or calm. Agree in advance to immediately stop the discussion if either person feels a discomfort level of 4, based on
 1 being comfortable and 10 being intensely uncomfortable.

Recognize any urge you may have to have the last word; believing that, by doing so, you and your partner will finally reach a truce. Also, recognize that your partner might feel anxious about ending the discussion while knowing you’re still angry. Discuss this in advance. Be specific about setting limits regarding cursing, yelling, threatening or abusive behavior.

3. We agree to a word or phrase to signal that either of us needs to disengage and cease further discussion. Agree in advance to a word or phrase that either person can say to immediately stop the discussion. One couple I worked with chose the word puppy’s feet.  Each was a dog lover who shared a history of fondness for dogs. Another couple chose the word turtle to convey a desire to retreat. They purchased a stuffed turtle and held it up as a signal to end the discussion. Choosing a whimsical word is a way to provide some levity when things are heating up.  

4. Ideally, we will resume the activity we had planned prior to having the conflict. Or, we may instead need solitude. Some couples can comfortably engage in an activity together, perhaps watching a movie or going out for dinner, once having decided to shelve their discussion. By contrast, you or your partner may need solitude. If this is the case, I strongly recommend that you go to another room rather than leave the house. Leaving home at that moment might trigger further anxiety for a partner, especially if he or she is sensitive to abandonment issues. It also sends a message that you might take flight whenever things become too heated. Additionally, leaving the house in a fit of anger can trigger hot buttons your partner may have regarding trust.

5. If we decide to stop a discussion without a resolution, we will resume it at another time when both of us are sufficiently calm. Both parties need to commit to solving the issue. You may decide to resume your discussion an hour later or even several days later. If your anger escalates during the next attempt, stop, calm down, and try again at a later time. If they concern important issues, unresolved conflicts will surface again. Failing to discuss the identified issue only undermines this entire agreement.

6. We will be mindful of time limits. You may find that when an argument begins at eight o’clock at night, you continue it for several hours. Begin the same argument at eight o’clock in the morning, when one or both of you have to leave for work, and you’re more likely to end the conflict. I recommend thirty to forty minutes as the limit for such discussions. If your discussion has not resolved, you may want to temporarily agree to disagree and resume your discussion later. Consider alternative ways of expressing your desires when you do so.

7. We will not argue in the bedroom. Avoid arguing in the bedroom—as it can lead you to associate the heightened tension of anger with sleep or physical intimacy. Your emotional mind is almost always more reactive when you’re tired. You’ll most likely forget what you said by morning, and staying up late will only leave you irritable the next day. In fact, a recent study suggests that when just one partner doesn’t get enough sleep, couples are more likely to experience conflicts and empathize less with each other (Gordon & Chen, 2013).

Therapists often advise that couples should never go to bed angry. This is certainly an ideal that both of you can aspire to. However, there’s a huge difference between agreeing to disagree and becoming so enraged that one of you leaves the argument and withdraws.

And after you have more fully addressed the issues, it can be helpful to apologize for your contribution to the tension and conflict. Apologizing decreases the sense of threat in others and encompasses compassion for yourself and your partner.

Ultimately, if you’re not able to follow these guidelines, you may benefit by seeking marital therapy. Doing so can provide more specific skills to help bridge your communication.

Having differences is to be expected when you form an intimate relationship. When they arise, your challenge is to express yourself constructively. Dealing with conflict in this manner is crucial ingredient for a more fulfilling relationship.

References

J. E. Salvatore, KS. I.uo, R. Steele, et. al. W. A. (2011). Recovering from conflict in romantic relationships: A developmental perspective. Psychological Science, 22(3), 376-383.

A. Gordon, and S. Chen, “The Role of Sleep in Interpersonal Con ict,” at http:// spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/13/1948550613488952.abstract.