Every couple will experience conflict in their relationship, no matter how happy they are together. Research done by John Gottman and Robert Levenson found that 69% of conflict in relationships is about unresolvable, perpetual problems based on differences between partners (Gottman). They also found that stable couples experience 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction, while that ratio for unstable couples is 0.8:1. So what does this information tell us about conflict in relationships? Simply put, conflict is inevitable and manageable. So let’s learn how to manage it!
Step one to learning how to manage conflict is identifying that you are angry. Often before we can even recognize that we are angry, our bodies already know. Our heart is beating faster, our thoughts are racing, our muscles are tense, our faces are red - we are physiologically activated. Pay attention to these sensations, as they are your body letting you know you’ve reached your emotional threshold. Aka your point of no return.
Once you are able to identify that you are angry, it’s time to learn how to calm yourself back down. Why? Because reaching your emotional threshold puts you on auto-pilot, meaning you lose your ability to choose your reaction to your partner. This means that any chance of having a productive conversation is lost. If you want to hear and be heard, you need to come back to a calm state. You can do this by taking a few good deep breaths or by taking a walk (if leaving is agreed to be non-threatening by both partners).
Once you have gotten yourself feeling a little calmer, it’s time for some self-reflection. Try and identify what caused your anger. Were you feeling misunderstood, judged, blamed, hurt? These are the feelings to share with your partner. It’s easier to connect when we share softer emotions, rather than our harsh anger. In order to share those softer emotions with your partner, you need to agree upon a time and place to try again. Check in about a good time to revisit the conversation. Lastly, remind yourself that you and your partner are on a team, that there are positives to your partner and your relationship with them. This will help you soften more towards your partner, rather than revamping your side of the argument.
Ok, so now you’re calm and you’ve established a time to try again. Here are a few things to try when sharing your perspective with your partner.
DO use “I-Statements.” These are statements that share your feelings in a non-accusatory way and propose a solution. They are the opposite of “you-statements,” which place our partner on the defense and assign blame.
You-statement : “You are always so inconsiderate! Why can’t you just come home when you say you will?!”
I-Statement : I feel anxious when I haven’t heard from you when you’re out. Could we set up a check-in system?
DON’T assassinate your partner’s character. This escalates the conflict and gets you farther away from sharing your perspective and working towards resolution.
DON’T call your partner names. This escalates the conflict and puts your partner on the defensive.
DON’T use the words always or never. This derails the conversation and allows more opportunity for further debate.
DO continue taking deep breaths throughout the conversation. This keeps you in control of your reactions and further away from your emotional threshold.
If you can begin implementing some of these tactics, your ability to manage conflict within your relationship will continue to become more and more effective, and easier to do consistently.