Raise your hand if you feel like you could do better when it comes to managing conflict in your relationship.
I have both hands up.
One of the lovely lasting effects of emerging from a marriage with a covert abuser who morphed and manipulated instead of speaking his mind was that after 16 years of partnership, I was still a newbie at managing conflict. And I’ve had plenty of falls down that steep learning curve.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned (okay, what I’m still learning) –
1 – Understand You and Your Partner’s Processing Styles
As an introvert, I tend to think for a long time before I speak. I can easily spend days letting an idea fully form before I release it to the world. My husband is the opposite. A classic extrovert, he processes his thoughts out loud, releasing them before they have any form at all.
Neither style is better than the other, but it’s important to recognize which one best fits you and your partner. The trouble comes when the introvert is pressed to speak immediately or the extrovert’s words are assumed to be well thought out gospel.
2 – Don’t Become too Attached to the Initial Words Spoken
We all can choose the wrong words or say something more harshly than we mean it. Whether coming from a place of impulsivity and emotional intensity or from a downward spiral led by our own imagination, we sometimes say things in a hurtful way.
When you’re the recipient of those words, it’s difficult not to react in defensiveness or anger. It feels like an attack and so it’s easy to respond in kind. Strive to take a breath and ask for clarification before you accept those words as truth. Often, you’ll find that those hurtful thoughts were more fears than reality.
3 – Speak Early and Often
We all know what happens when you heat a tightly sealed container in the microwave. Don’t be that container. Instead of letting your grievances build, share your concerns as they arise.
This strategy has two benefits – One, conflicts are easily to manage when they are small and two, we improve at anything with practice. You will learn to navigate conflict better if it is smaller and more frequent than the occasional big blowout.
4 – Pay More Attention to What is Working
We all are prone to something called the negativity bias, where negative interactions have much more prominence in our minds than positive ones (which helped us avoid eating poison berries back in the day but now means that a random comment on social media can send us for a loop). So be cognizant of what you say to your partner. Strive to make at least 5-6 positive comments for every negative one.
Also be aware of your own reaction. You may feel like they are always harping on you, but is that truth or your own bias convincing you that it is real. Pay attention (and maybe even write down) each of the positive words or actions. They may be more numerous than you realize.
5 – Monitor Your Internal Dialog
Have you ever had an entire argument with someone in your head? Or had a dream about someone and been irritated with them when you woke up? Has your brain ever taken a small conflict and ridden it all the way to the most awful and catastrophic conclusion?
It’s easy to make assumptions about how somebody is going to respond and then spiral from those assumptions. Sometimes we spend so much time thinking through a potential conflict that we struggle to separate the real reactions from the imagined ones. Pay attention to how much time you spend mentally rehearsing a conflict and make sure that you give your partner the space to respond before you assume their reaction.
6 – Pay Attention to Your Physical Response
Are you starting to shake? Is your blood pressure increasing? How about your heart rate? When your body becomes too aroused from the conflict, your ability to think rationally decreases. You shift from the thinking brain to the reactionary brain.
Learn how to calm your body’s responses through breathing. It may be cliche, but slow and deep breaths really can help to calm the body and mind (I like a 4 count in, hold for 5 and exhale for 7). In addition, note how your body’s position impacts your physical reactions. I have noticed that I literally feel more grounded when I’m sitting on the floor and so I use that to my advantage when I know that I’m in for an emotionally-charged situation.
7 – Take Purposeful Timeouts
Timeouts can be a great strategy when a conversation becomes too heated. But they need to be done the right way. First, make sure to set a deadline for when the conversation will be continued. Otherwise, timeouts can simply become a strategy for avoidance.
Also, use the timeout wisely. Exercise, meditate, go for a walk or engage in your favorite creative pursuit. If all you do is sit and stew in your emotions, there is really no value to the break.
8 – Engage in Teamwork-Oriented Activities
It’s easy to get confused in the midst of conflict and think that it’s you vs. partner. Where in reality, it’s you AND partner vs. problem. To help reinforce the reminder that you’re on the team, engage in activities that require that you work together to complete some goal.
When doing this, make note (and verbalize) the strengths you see in your partner. Take the time to remember past challenges that you successfully navigated together. Remember what it was that you saw in them in the first place.