In my last two posts, I talked about uncontrolled conflict and avoiding conflict: two situations that are almost certain to lead to dissolution of any relationship. In this post, I want to talk about the recipe that I offer to clients who are involved in uncontrolled conflict or conflict avoidance. These four steps are designed to change your conflict dynamic from confrontational to collaborative.
Step 1: Assume the best about your partner
This is a tough one for many couples. Multiple betrayals (both real and imagined), hurtful words, inexplicable behaviors, etc. can all lead to a place where your default position is to assume the worst about your partner. But, if couples can’t get to a place where they start with assuming the best about one another, then their chances of relationship success are severely diminished.
What does this look like? Well, if my wife comes home in a very bad mood one day, slams her purse down, sighs heavily, looks around the house and rolls her eyes, I can interpret this behavior in a very negative way: “She’s upset that the house isn’t cleaner, and she doesn’t like the fact that I got home before her, and I’m just sitting around watching old re-runs of Seinfeld.” On the other hand, I could interpret those actions and think, “She must’ve had a frustrating day today. I wonder what’s going on with her and how I can help her to feel better?”
Likewise, it very much could be the case that my wife is upset about the state of the house and that I got home earlier than her, but she could begin with the assumption, “He’s home early tonight, I wonder if he had to leave work unexpectedly? I hope everything’s okay.”
Now, I’m not saying that you and your partner are always behaving as perfect angels in the relationship. But usually, conflict arises out of misinterpretations of one another’s intentions, and one of the best ways to tame that beast is to interpret your partner’s every action through the lens of positive intent.
Step 2: Begin with emotion as the focus of the problem
It’s not unusual for us to initiate a discussion about a problem with criticism or complaining. In fact, that’s the typical way that many couples begin an argument: He doesn’t like that she takes so long to get ready in the morning; she hates the fact that he can’t put his dirty clothes in the clothes hamper.
But when you initiate a conversation around a disagreement with complaints or criticism, you immediately put the other person on the defensive. You are implying that they are behaving in an inferior way and that your way is better and more appropriate. This is the fast track to unnecessary conflict.
You can remove the blame and shame elements of complaints and criticism through this simple step: begin by talking about how you feel about the problem in question. For example, rather than complaining that he never puts his clothes in the clothes hamper, stop and ask yourself why it’s important to you to have them in the hamper and how it makes you feel when dirty clothes are left on the floor. Once you can describe the feeling that it gives you and why it’s important to you, then you can begin the conversation by explaining how you feel and asking if he would be willing to help out with the situation for your sake. This kind of approach typically leads down a very different path than simply accusing your partner of being a lazy slob!
Step 3: Start with yourself first
It’s easy to see the problems in other people and remain blind to our own foibles and flaws. But good, healthy conflict happens when you start by assuming that you are (at least to some degree) contributing to the problem in one way or another.
(Note: If you’re in a relationship where you are being physically or emotionally abused, the above statement is never accurate. It is NOT your fault in any way, and you should never accept blame for your partner’s abuse. Instead, you should seek to end the relationship in the safest way possible. If you are in an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.)
When you assume that you have a role to play, too, then you can approach most problems with a more collaborative mindset: “How can we solve this problem together so that it works for both of us?” This leads to the last step.
Step 4: Ask for help
If you place all the responsibility and onus on one partner for any given issue in the relationship, you’re immediately turning the problem into a “me vs. him/her” problem, and that’s not very productive. Instead, you should approach each problem as an opportunity to ask for help from your partner in finding a common solution that you both can live with. When you ask for help in solving a problem, you’ve immediately made the issue one of collaboration and not of accusation.
Trying it Out
The four steps I’ve outlined above are not necessarily easy to implement. It takes practice to become skillful at approaching relationship problems this way. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the reward for making the effort can be immense. Imagine being able to address areas of dissatisfaction in your relationship without things becoming defensive, critical, or angry every time. Imagine being able to resolve areas of conflict successfully and put to rest long-standing disagreements because you’ve finally collaborated on a solution that you both can live with. This is what the recipe I’ve described can help you do.
It is by no means a perfect formula, and there are some conflicts that are more complicated than others. But this approach offers the opportunity to change drastically the nature of most conflicts in your relationship, and it increases the chances that you relationship will last for the long-term. I hope you’ve found something useful here. If you have any questions or thoughts on this topic, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.