So there’s this pernicious myth out there about relationships. Have you heard it?
“Happy couples don’t fight.”
Even if you know, intellectually, that this isn’t true, this myth can take hold in our minds. After all, fighting with our partner feels….bleagh. Surely there’s something wrong when we do, right?
The truth is, conflict is a normal and inevitable part of any healthy relationship. But while conflict isn’t necessarily destructive, how you handle it can be. Check out these five research-based tips on how to manage and resolve arguments in your relationship in a way that can actually strengthen, rather than harm, your bond.
#1 Ground yourself on the COR of the issue
For our purposes, we mean Cooperative, Open, and Respectful. Before raising a heated issue with your partner (or even after you can catch yourself in the middle of an argument), pause and remember to bring these three qualities to the conversation:
Cooperative: Assume that you and your partner are facing a challenge together and working toward a common goal. Seeing arguments through a lens of cooperation leads to better communication and conflict resolution.
Open: For healthy conflict resolution, focus not on “being right” but rather on “being heard.” Be honest about your feelings on the issue, and focus on communicating these feelings rather than pointing out flaws in your partner’s point of view. Couch your language in “I” statements to avoid playing the blame game.
Respectful: Respect that your partner’s point of view is linked to his or her feelings, values, and needs. Don’t link your disagreement on the topic at hand to bigger issues you see as flaws in your partner or relationship. Name-calling and yelling are strict no-nos.
#2 Take a break, don’t escalate
If you’re struggling to adhere to those COR values, step away for a cooling off period. According to renowned relationship researcher and psychologist Dr. John Gottman, it’s smart to take a 20 minute break before entering or resuming a challenging conversation with your partner. Hitting the pause button gives you and your partner a chance to cool your high emotions and then return to the conversation in a calmer state of mind.
This may be harder to do than it sounds, especially if you’re new to the practice. It’s so tempting to jump right into an issue, especially when your emotions are high. But this kind of self-control is well worth the effort and can be useful in virtually any relationship within your life.
As for what you actually do during that 20 minute break? Take a brisk walk, read a few pages of a good book, or just do something to distract yourself, so you don’t spend the whole time ruminating on why you’re write and your partner is oh-so wrong. Hint: Hold off on that glass of wine until after you and your beau move past the conflict, since alcohol can make you more argumentative and aggressive.
#3 Start smart
Dr. Gottman and his team of researchers found in a 6-year study that they could actually predict which newlywed couples would end up divorcing just by observing the first three minutes of a conflict discussion. Their ultimate conclusion? How a conversation starts will strongly predict how the conversation will end.
With this in mind, be mindful about how you broach a challenging subject with your partner. Utilizing the COR concept can help, as can exercising your active listening skills. Make eye contact, use non-threatening body language, don’t interrupt, and asking clarifying questions.
You should also memorize a few de-escalating phrases so you’re prepared to repair and redirect as necessary throughout the conversation. Consider these phrases inspired by researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown:
“The story I’m telling myself about this is…”
“Let me try again…”
“Help me understand…”
“That’s not my experience…”
“I’m curious about…”
And always begin by taking a few deep breaths. Deep, full breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system which regulates the stress-induced “fight or flight” response) and can help you stay cool, calm, and collected.
#4 Know your context
There are at least two contexts to consider regarding relationship conflict that will help you determine how to handle it more effectively and regulate yourself well during the argument.
The type of relationship you’re in: Dr. Gottman and other relationship researchers have identified at least 3 primary types of relationships, each of which tend to approach conflict differently: Validating, Volatile, and Conflict-Avoidant. Knowing the type of relationship you have can help you balance your expectations. If necessary, it may also inspire you to seek objective help from a counselor so you can gain more tools and strategies for negotiating your unique partnership style.
The type of conflict you’re having: in a 2017 paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Opinion in Psychology, a team of researchers discovered that different types of conflict often require different types of approaches. For instance, they found that for serious problems that have the potential to be changed, “direct opposition” (e.g., expressing anger, taking a non-negotiable stance) can be the most effective. Meanwhile, for arguments that are relatively minor, “indirect cooperation” (e.g., minimizing the problem, emphasizing positive aspects of the relationship) may be more productive. No need to get lost in the weeds of diagnosis here, just remember the upshot: Know thyself and pick your battles.
#5 Expect to compromise
No, compromise is not a dirty word. If you can find common ground and make agreements—without violating your boundaries or true values—you’re winning together and you’re doing something healthy for your relationship.
By definition, conflicts are uncomfortable, especially when they’re with someone we share an intimate bond with. But don’t confuse discomfort for dysfunction—as long as you utilize the strategies outlined here, you can emerge from your conflicts with a stronger, happier relationship.
About the Author
Sara McEvoy, PT, DPT, is a licensed and board-certified doctor of physical therapy who is also a professional freelance writer. She researches and writes almost exclusively within the health and wellness field. When she is not writing, Sara enjoys reading, exercising, traveling, and volunteering at her local Humane Society.
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