You will disagree with your partner, that’s a given. But it’s not arguing with him or her that’s the problem, it’s how your differences are managed. Love means risking occasionally getting your feelings hurt because it’s the price you pay for intimacy. Most of us dislike conflict. But while conflict may appear to be a destructive force in relationships, it can actually help us achieve lasting love.
In all intimate relationships, conflicting needs for closeness and space exist. When issues come up with either of these needs, it’s essential that you discuss them with your partner and find creative ways to compromise so that both of you can get some (not all) of your needs met.
Taking the time to manage conflicts and repair from arguments with your partner in a healthy way is hard work – but the payoff is tremendous. It’s essential that you accept differences rather than define your relationship problems in terms of your partner’s character flaws, according to Deborah Hecker, Ph.D. She writes, “Typically I define couples’ problems in terms of differences between them rather than the defects in either partner. A focus on defectiveness leads to blame and accusations on the one hand and defensiveness on the other. Effective solutions are not likely to result.”
Every relationship has its ups and downs, and conflict goes with the territory. Yet you might avoid it because it may have signified the end of your parents’ marriage or led to bitter disputes. Marriage counselor, Michele Weiner Davis explains that avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. She explains that bottling up negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t give your partner a chance to change their behavior. On the other hand, Weiner cautions that one of the secrets of a good marriage or romantic relationship is learning to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and important ones.
Serena, age 38, was raised in a family where her parents managed conflicts poorly and experienced a bitter divorce. She strives to use a problem-solving approach with her husband Justin and to learn to manage their differences more effectively but they’ve had struggles with job losses, financial issues, and health problems.
Serena’s learning to focus less on blaming Jason and reflecting more on her own behaviors, such as keeping secrets about money. This was a pattern she learned from her mother and she has a hard time being vulnerable and transparent with Jason when she purchases something for herself or their home.
Like all smart women, Serena realizes that every relationship goes through rough patches and that it takes two people to contribute to the difficulties. Since she enjoys being married overall, Serena decided to focus more on Jason’s positive qualities – such as being a great father – rather than negative ones. “That’s when I noticed that I had a problem communicating. I expected Jason to know what I wanted without me telling him what I needed. When he failed, I’d punish him with the silent treatment, or blow up. When I let go of my efforts to fix him, and started working on fixing myself, things began to get better,” she says.6 ways to stop the “blame game” and manage conflicts in a healthy way:
- Take a risk and talk about hurt feelings– especially if it’s an important issue. Opening up to our partner can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, but it is the most important ingredient of a trusting, intimate relationship. Don’t sweep negative feelings under the rug for too long.
- Avoid building a case against your partnerand don’t make lists of their flaws.
- Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement.
- Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements that tend to come across as blameful. For instance, saying “I felt hurt when you bought me that gift for my birthday” will work better than “You never buy me thoughtful gifts.”
- Don’t make threats or issue ultimatums. Avoid saying things you’ll regret later.
- Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded.Accept that not all conflicts can be resolved – especially in one day! Taking a break will give you time to calm down and collect your thoughts. Sometimes it’s best to “drop it” in order to stop the “blame game.”
Be sure to pay close attention to your reactions the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner. Take a look at the part you play. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities – even as you struggle with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Keep in mind Dr. Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions – a five-to-one ratio. For every negative interaction in a relationship, you need five positive ones.
Since we all have flaws, focus on not getting defensive because that will only push your mate away. The next time you feel upset at your partner, examine your own thoughts and responses – before you point out their faults. It’s also a great idea to make a list of what you love about your spouse (and ask them to do the same). Then share your lists with each other. If you give your partner the benefit of doubt, you’ll be more concerned with being happy than being right, and find lasting love.
Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry