How To Engage In Conflict And Build Love In Your Relationship
It’s a truism in relationships – we argue and fight. You could say that the process of becoming close with another person involves bringing down all of the defences we have built into ourselves to protect us from being vulnerable and being hurt. Some of these defences we are aware of and yet many of them are purely beyond our awareness and in our unconscious.
We argue and fight to protect ourselves and what is precious to us and often the conflicts we have in our relationships become cyclical and symptomatic of an ongoing power struggle with each battle a fight for points and survival. We also fight dirty. The tactics we use in our conflicts with our partners is perhaps the best determinant of both our inner mental and emotional ages and also where we see ourselves in the struggle for power.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Over the years of working with men and women I’ve come up with a few basic ground rules for engaging in conflict in a relationship and building back the intimacy, respect and love you have for each other. I always insist that my clients post these rules on their fridge for each to see and refer to when the action starts to happen.
Rule 1- Get To Your Own Ground Zero – Speak About Yourself, Not Your Partner
What made you mad or sad or scared? Explain what the triggering event or circumstance is to your partner by speaking about yourself only. Strip out any blaming language and replace it with as many inarguable, self-truth facts you can express. Your goal is to give your partner the clearest picture you can of what and how you feel in the present moment.
Rule 2- Stay Laser Focused On The Present Topic
Discuss one issue at a time. Conflict has a tendency to be like Velcro – once one emotion is brought to the surface it’s very easy to start remembering all of the past events that have made us feel a similar feeling and to start naming off all of the wrongs you feel have been done by your partner. This is conflict suicide. By bringing previous un-resolved or lingering events into the current fight it will only send the the two of you down a frustrating and painful rabbit hole. There are no snacks down that hole – only molten hurt.
Rule 3- No Power Moves – Intimidation, Force, or Sarcasm
Including pushing, shoving, grabbing, hitting, punching, slapping, restraining, blocking escape, damaging property, and throwing/breaking things, or using words to tear strips of flesh off of each-other. You each have a right to be safe & free of abuse and if you or your spouse won’t abide by this rule – your relationship is toxic and unsafe and you need professional help.
Rule 4- No Dredging Up The Past
Dredging is about finding lost things or dead bodies and there is simply no purpose in dragging the dead bodies of your relationship into the current argument as a justification or a defence. Stay in the current moment.
Rule 5- No Character Assassinations – Focus on Behaviour
Listen, you are not Jason Bourne here – so put away the character assassination skills. This includes no put downs & no degrading language, or using triggering comparisons, (“You’re just like your mother/father”). Focus on specific behaviour and only the behaviour. “I am mad because you interrupted me while I was on an important call.”
Rule 6- Listen, Listen, With No Interrupting
In any discussion heated or otherwise it is important to take turns sharing the talking. Not much will get accomplished or even heard if the two of you are trying to talk over each other as your brains will forego observing and understanding the other in favor of forming your comebacks. In my office I set a timer. We all have one on our smartphone and I set mine for 3 minutes and let each person take turns talking. Most couples find this awkward at first but typically within their first ‘timed’ argument they become used to and appreciate their 3 minutes of un-interrupted time. And, interestingly enough, their listening improves dramatically with this technique.
Rule 7- No Yelling To Scare Or Intimidate
Yelling never helps the problem but rather is a sure sign that you feel you are in a power struggle and losing. Yelling puts the other person’s defences up immediately and shifts their brains from listening to your words to observing you as a potential threat. In any communication, when someone starts yelling, the other person usually shuts off any listening skills for healthy communication – it’s just how we are wired. And again, your argument will quickly escalate from a discussion to a battle for survival where each of you will take turns being aggressive and defensive. What is yelling and what is speaking loudly – imagine your spouse is a 6yr old child – if your tone and volume of voice would be intimidating to a 6 yr old child then you’re yelling or, using your voice to evoke fear.
Rule 8- No Withholding Or Damming Up
Damming up is closing up protectively so you can’t be reached which might feel safe for awhile but trust me, in the long run it will sabotage your relationship. It is a passive aggressive move to pull up your emotional drawbridge to become an emotional fortress. Withholding communicating about the issue feeds the power struggle in your relationship and leads to deep sense of powerlessness to start forming. By the way, damming up also includes locking yourself away in a room, walking out the door suddenly in the middle of the fight and, demanding that your spouse sleep in another room.
Rule 9- Remove The Guillotine Of Divorce Or Separation
Conflicts are heated moments in your relationship and many people choose to manipulate the conflict by threatening to bail out of the relationship. This is what children do when they don’t get what they want – they take their toys and go home – Unless your relationship is toxic and this is a boundary setting move, remember that you are adults. Threatening the relationship insures that conflicts re-cycle especially when the pressure of the guillotine on the relationship’s neck is lifted.
Rule 10- Call A Timeout
If your emotions are getting too heated then call a timeout. There are rules to follow for timeouts: Maximum 2hr timeout period; both you and your partner must agree, (not reasonably withheld), to return to the dialogue and work on resolution.