Navigating Conflicts in a Relationship
Navigating conflicts in a relationship is a necessary part of any healthy, long-term partnership. When disagreements arise, it’s important to remember that there are 2 sides to every story and try to see things from your partner’s perspective.
Reacting negatively during a conflict can escalate the situation and lead to irreparable damage to your relationship. To avoid this, it’s helpful to recognize negative reactions like criticism, defensiveness, and contempt.
1. Recognize Your Triggers
During a conflict, people often exhibit defensive behavior, argue, or become overwhelmed. They may also use body language that conveys anger or fear, like clenching the teeth or looking away. When you learn the wordless clues to read these emotional signatures, you can pick up on your partner’s feelings and respond calmly.
Recognizing your triggers is key to preventing escalation during conflicts. For example, if you find yourself getting frustrated by cumulative annoyance—such as when your partner is late for class three times in a row—you might start to think, “This is becoming a pattern. I’m not going to tolerate this anymore.” That is a trigger that can be replaced with more thoughtful communication.
When you recognize a trigger, go back in your mind to when it first happened and see if you can pinpoint the thought or bad feelings. Then try to go even further back, until you reach a time before that original trigger and can’t feel those same negative thoughts or emotions anymore.
2. Actively Listen
While it is important to communicate your side of the story in a relationship conflict, it is equally as important to actively listen to your partner’s side. This is essential for defusing conflict and moving forward together. Listen for what is felt as much as what is being said, and avoid interrupting or correcting your partner.
Active listening requires giving your undivided attention to the speaker. This means not checking your phone, responding to another conversation in the background, or even just taking a deep breath to calm down. You must also refrain from making negative facial expressions and body language.
Additionally, it is important to ask follow-up questions and paraphrase what the speaker has said in order to confirm that you understand. You can also use a pen and paper to write down thoughts as they are speaking, which will help you stay organized during the discussion. Lastly, try to avoid asking “yes or no” questions that only produce dead-end answers.
Finally, it is important to assess your own emotions before communicating during a relationship conflict. If you are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or emotional, it is best to delay the discussion until those needs have been met. In addition, it may be helpful to practice breathing exercises such as the 4-7-8 method (inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts). This will help to ground you and regulate your emotions before you start discussing a conflict with your partner.
3. Agree to a Common Goal
The goal of conflict management is to find a resolution that works for both partners. This isn’t always easy, but it can lead to more healthy, lasting relationships. In contrast, avoiding conflict can leave couples stuck in unhealthy patterns that cause long-term damage to their relationship.
During heated discussions, it’s important to avoid personal jibes and put-downs. These tactics can escalate the argument and make you both angrier and more defensive. Also, avoid crossing the line into verbal aggression by yelling or cursing at your partner. If you or your partner frequently resort to these types of behaviors, seeking professional help may be necessary.
Once you have identified the origins of your disagreement, it’s time to search for common ground. Often, this is easier than you might think. For example, if you and your partner are arguing about spending time with your friends, you could compromise by agreeing to alternate days for each of you to spend time with your friends.
It’s also important to remember that it’s OK to disagree with your partner and that you can still care deeply for them. However, you should strive to be respectful and approach the conversation in a positive tone. If you are unable to find a common solution, it might be time to agree to disagree and move on.
4. Take a Break
Sometimes, a break can be the best way to deal with conflict in your relationship. A break is defined as “time apart without the intention of returning to the relationship.” Depending on the context, it can mean anything from staying in separate homes to simply not texting or talking for an agreed upon amount of time.
In the case of a romantic relationship, taking a break can be beneficial when you’re not sure how much longer you want to be together.
However, there are a few downsides to taking a break. One major issue is that it can simply act as a way to postpone a breakup, prolonging the pain, sadness, guilt and distress that might come with ending a relationship.
If you decide to take a break, it’s important that both parties agree on the length of time and set specific checkpoints for when you’ll be in touch to discuss your progress and reflections. It’s also helpful if both people agree not to date or hang out with other people while on the break. If you do end up reconciling your relationship, it’s important to know that if the same problem crops up again in the future, it will be easier to work through it with clear boundaries in place.