Conflict is a necessary part of all intimate relationships. Anyone who tells you they never fight with their partner is either not being honest, or is practicing extreme conflict avoidance which can destroy intimacy. However, if done well, conflict can lead to greater closeness and can strengthen relationships by allowing both partners to feel seen.
Couples who have healthy, intimate relationships have found the secret to successful conflict. But for conflict to lead to intimacy, certain ground rules must be in place. There is fair fighting and then there is conflict that is extremely destructive.
Consider boxing as a metaphor for fair fighting. While some might see boxing as a little barbaric, there are clearly defined rules for the fight. There are places you hit and places you don’t. There is a referee to keep it under control. There are timed rounds ending in time outs where boxers return to their corners to regroup. It may be rough, but in a lot of ways it is a very orderly sport.
On the other hand, think about street fighting. While boxing is a sport, most people would not want to be anywhere near a street fight. There are no rules! Anything can happen and people can get badly hurt. This is violent conflict at its worst!
Avoiding conflict is not the best option either. Generally, when this happens, partners withhold more and more of what is really bothering them, afraid to rock the boat by sharing their needs and feelings. This leads to buried resentments, which may eventually blow up, or lead to extramarital affairs, or even result in health problems
Which best describes your worst arguments? Are you like boxers staying within clear boundaries or do you go at it like street fighters in a no-holds-barred fight? Or do you just try your best to avoid any conflict at all?
For the health of your relationship, consider these ground rules to provide a frame for your conflict:
- Start soft. Don’t begin an argument when you are already highly emotional, tired, or feeling triggered. And of course, don’t get into an argument if there is alcohol involved as it will always go badly.
- Stay on track. Too often when conflict escalates, multiple topics are introduced, emotions escalate, and phrases like “you always”, “it must be nice to be perfect”, “you never…” get introduced. All of this escalates both the emotion and the argument and guarantees that nothing will be resolved and both partners will feel even more distant.
- Take time outs when necessary. If you are emotionally overwhelmed, or intensely agitated, call for a brief time out. Continuing when you feel out of control is bound to go badly.
- Be able to recognize when the argument is getting away from you. That is your cue to slow it down and do something different. Don’t keep doing what you always do, since you will always get the same outcome. Rather than focus on your next response, tell your partner you really want to better understand their perspective, and work on listening to them.
- Finally, any argument can be slowed down if you try to listen carefully to your partner, and then summarize what they are saying, and asking if they feel like you are understanding them. This simple technique, while difficult when emotions are high, will keep arguments from escalating.
Remember, conflict is unavoidable. Done well, it will result in greater closeness. Use these techniques to better assess how your conflict pattern is working, and begin to experiment with making some changes for the health of your relationship.