Relationship Conflict as an Opportunity for Intimacy
A mediator reveals the secrets of successful conflict resolution.
Posted Jun 23, 2019
So many people fear conflict—especially conflict with their romantic partner. They believe it's a sign that something’s rotten in Relationship-land.
In fact, if anything, conflict is a sign that neither partner is dead.
To be human is to have needs and desires that clash with those of other humans, including humans we love: You want sex when they want to sleep. They have a fierce love of camping; you have a fierce love of indoor plumbing. Or you’re an extravert/party animal and your partner’s an introvert, which is to say their preferred activity at a party is hiding under a parked car like a cat till it’s over.
But there’s a problem: Most of us handle our conflicts pretty poorly. There are two reasons for this—first, dreading conflict and seeing it as something to avoid. Second, we treat conflict as a call to go on the attack—to lash out at the person taking issue with us or something we’re doing.
CONFLICT IS AN OPPORTUNITY
We should instead use conflict as an opportunity—for personal growth and more intimate, happier relationships.
The conflict turned into opportunity starts with restraint. Preplan not to give in to the impulse in the heat of the moment to blame and criticize.
Blame statements are easily recognizable because they start with you: “You were supposed to...” (Criticizing remarks start similarly.)
Tempting as it is to respond to somebody taking issue with your behavior by pointing the finger at them, a blaming statement is not exactly the Yellow Brick Road to resolution. As I explain in my “science-help” book, “Unf*ckology,” that’s because verbal attacks read to our fight-or-flight system like they’re physical attacks. This means we have the same physiological response we would if we were being chased by an ax-wielding killer: raging adrenaline and blood surging to our arms and legs, and...oops!...away from our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we use for reasoning.
REMOVE THE HEAT FROM THE MOMENT
Beyond not going on aggressive autopilot in the heat of the moment, it’s vital to remove the heat from the moment. To do this, it helps to understand that conflicts are natural and normal; just situations to work through and nothing to fear or feel bad about.
USE THE MEDIATOR’S TOOL KIT TO MAKE RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT A POSITIVE THING
Working through relationship conflict takes a few steps and insights that we mediators use to get successful resolutions in our cases:
1. Talking: Give each partner a turn to lay out what they’re feeling and what they want. It’s very important that you do this not with blaming words (“You did this...”) but with “I statements,” like “I felt bad when...” Essentially, instead of attacking the other person as a rotten person for how they behaved or what they want, you’re expressing how the behavior or proposal makes you feel. (We can empathize with feelings, which helps us be solution-oriented; we don’t empathize with attacks!)
It’s very important while one partner speaking that the other partner does not interrupt. Also, Fran Lebowitz’s line is very funny: “The opposite of talking is not listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” However, to get resolution -- and for both parties to feel respected and heard–it’s important that each party listens (and forgive me for going all cornball on you) with an open mind and an open heart.
You can even do what we have parties do in mediation: Have some paper and two pens on the table so you can each write down stuff you want to address when it’s your turn to talk.
It’s important to be mindful of “positions” vs. “interests” as you’re listening to each other. Positions are our stated desires: “I want you to take out the garbage without always needing to be asked.” Interests are the underlying feelings: “I want you to treat me like my feelings matter.”
After each person shares their feelings and what resolution they’re looking for, the other partner should be given a chance to respond with any additional points.
2. Understanding: In a meditation about a neighbor's loud rooster, I’d say to the party who owns the rooster, “Mrs. Smith, can you understand that your neighbor, Mrs. Jones, isn’t a rooster hater and doesn't hate you; she just needs her sleep so she doesn’t nod off at the wheel on the way to work?” And then I’d turn to neighbor awakened by the rooster: “And Mrs. Jones, can you understand that Mrs. Smith didn't realize that a rooster would do its thing at 3 a.m.—that she didn’t get the rooster just to mess with you?”
If you remove the mediator and the poultry from the equation, basically, the goal is to empathize with the other person and validate their feelings. In other words, do what I did in cultivating understanding, but speak directly to your partner: “I didn’t realize why that was so important for you...” And then it’s their turn to do it back.
To keep things from getting combative, it’s important to maintain the right attitude, which is that this is basically a workshop for solutions, in which you collaborate to solve your problem. (Consider how different that thinking is from that of typical couples’ conflicts, driven by each side’s desire to “win.”)
3. Agenda-setting: After there’s an understanding between the parties, it’s time to set the agenda, which means figuring out the items that need to be addressed: 1. Noise from the rooster. 2. Etc.
It’s good to be open to taking breaks. Take five or 10 minutes after you do the Understanding thing, for example, and one of you take a walk around the block and the other does something else. You can take breaks throughout.
4. Negotiation: After a breather, you start addressing the agenda items. Do the easiest one first, like “How we talk to each other when we’re upset.” It’s usually pretty easy to get agreement on that. Everybody usually feels pretty bad for using nasty language or at least, less than loving language.
5. Agreement: As for how to get an agreement, what you do is brainstorm–you each throw out ideas for solutions. Encourage wild ideas–laughing is good, and sometimes wild solutions lead to really smart practical ones by giving people ideas.
If you get tired, take a break–maybe even for a day–and come back to the “mediation” table. Hangry (hungry and angry) people are not the best problem-solvers. Quite the contrary.
Save the toughest item for last. But understand something important: not all problems are solvable.
What I’ve found to be amazing, however, in the mediations I do, is that solutions don’t always matter–even to the people who came in adamant that they had to have them.
Remember “positions” vs. “interests”? What really matters is that people feel they’re being treated with respect; that the other person cares about them; that their needs matter.
And this is the big secret of both successful mediation and successful relationships. Ultimately, by dealing with conflict in healthy ways, you and your partner will know each other’s feelings more deeply, feel more respected by each other and have a deeper and more satisfying relationship.
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Alkon, A. (2018). Unf* ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. St. Martin's Griffin.
Fisher, R., Ury, W. L., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. Penguin.