Couples Can Learn to Fight Fair
Many couples get caught up in arguing over the typical problems that plague relationships. The list of topics that couples "lock horns" over is actually quite short. Generally, couples feud over finances, household tasks, in-laws, parenting issues, and lack of trust. Conflict resolution takes work and patience.
Couples tend to play out an interactional dance as their way of managing the stress associated with themes of conflict. Couples will "press the play button" and create the same interactional cycle on a continuous basis. The conflict takes on a life of its own and generally leads to reactivity or avoidance. One partner may be visibly angry, while the other partner shuts down and distances from the conflict. Often, both partners will either become aggressive or fluctuate by passively pretending that the conflict does not exist. Some couples may respond with, "I don't know what our problem is ... it doesn't make sense, because we never fight with each other."
I tell these couples that I am not impressed by their silence. Learning how to fight appropriately (conflict resolution) is an integral part of relationship communications. In any intimate relationship, honest communication that involves intense feelings is a necessary process. Couples must learn to feel safe enough in the relationship to express difficult thoughts and feelings. Here are some insights that may assist couples to fight more constructively:
- Recognize that some conflict is an inevitable, unavoidable by-product of any meaningful relationship.
- Respond rather than react. Promote understanding in the relationship by remaining calm, and asking your partner questions for clarification.
- It's perfectly acceptable to disagree. You don't always have to be right! Accept and respect differences of opinions.
- Listen carefully to each other without making value judgments.
- Avoid getting defensive and intent on justifying your perspective.
- Avoid shutting the conversation down unless you are "pressing the play button" and need a time out. Mutually decide when to resume discussing the issue.
- Stressors, including unresolved family-of-origin issues can affect current communications. Recognize the stressors, acknowledge them to your partner, and refrain from using them as a "psychological club."
- Avoid manipulating by using historical family comparisons. This pattern only exacerbates reactivity.
- If you get off track in your communications and you feel unsafe, call a truce and resume your discussion later.
- Reinforce one another when you are able to get closure on an issue.
Communicating through conflict takes patience and perseverance. Remember that conflict is inevitable, and that one's style of relating may affect the outcome. Learn to respond rather than react to problems. Couples can learn to make their point in a kind, considerate manner that will help foster successful conflict resolution.
James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale. He can be reached at krehbielcounseling.com.