Fighting Fair: How To Deal With Conflict In Romantic Relationships

We’ve all seen them…that awkward couple who argues in public.

The lady jumps up and throws a drink in her companion’s face, snatches her purse and storms out of the five-star restaurant in tears.

The angry, loud couple at Wal-mart who get into a heated shouting match that escalates to the point that they start throwing shoes at each other.

OR the poor sap angrily pacing on the street corner waving his arms wildly as he shouts obscenities into the phone.

As bystanders, we may chuckle and shake our heads as we witness these scenes. Vowing, deep down inside never to be that couple.

And then one day, YOU are the one being escorted out of Wal-Mart by security and threatened with legal action if you and your mate ever return.

Congratulations. You have become that couple.

It happens to the best of us

Arguments in romantic relationships are normal and actually healthy. In fact, research shows that a couple that doesn’t argue is in more trouble than the ones who make public spectacles of themselves. According to author and relationship expert Diane Sawaya Cloutier, healthy couples don’t shy away from conflict and are not afraid to broach difficult topics. She believes that

“when taboo or uncomfortable topics remain unaddressed, they can turn any benign event into a big drama that could have been avoided in the first place…”

Relationship experts all agree that healthy relationships are riddled with arguments. And it makes sense. You have two passionate and intelligent individuals with entirely different backgrounds and histories sharing the same space and having to navigate life together. Under those circumstances, arguing is inevitable.

It’s not about the “what.” It’s all about the “how.”

The concept of conflict or arguing conjures up negative thoughts and emotions in most people. If your mate doesn’t agree with you, you may feel a sense of betrayal and lash out at him or her because you are hurt. You may

  • give him or her the silent treatment.
  • disappear without checking in for hours or even days on end.
  • attack your partner (name calling, belittling) instead of the issue.
  • make an issue black or white/right or wrong with your point of view as being entirely right and their’s entirely wrong.
  • bad mouth your mate to your family or friends or even worse–posting cryptic messages on social media.

The normal human inclination is to lash out or retaliate when you are hurt or threatened. The problem with retaliation is that it only compounds the issue–not resolve it.

The truth is love is a scary thing. When you are truly in love, you open yourself up and become vulnerable. You are exposed and subject to being hurt.

Fighting Fair

The key to healthily handling conflicts that arise in your relationship is to respond constructively–with love and logic. And work to avoid knee-jerk fear-based reactions.

Conflict is inevitable. Instead of waiting for it to arise and dealing with it on the fly, it is far more productive to take a proactive, intentional approach to dealing with conflict. And while you can’t anticipate the nature of the argument, you can plan a tactical response.

Below are a few strategies to help you and your partner constructively deal with conflict:

1. Assess your feelings before you engage

In lieu of flying off the handle and laying into your partner, take a moment to check your emotions and gather your thoughts. You have to move from your initial visceral and primitive feelings to a place of practicality and analysis. The quicker you do this the better.

When you feel anger and other negative emotions begin to bubble toward the surface, take a break and calm yourself down. You are allowed to feel how you feel. Your feelings are valid and legitimate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be expressed at that moment. Your feelings will change and fluctuate, it’s important to understand how you truly feel (at least to some extent) and why before you discuss.

2. Watch your mouth

Once you’ve had a chance to process and sort through your emotions, then you are ready to share your feelings with your partner. When discussing the issue:

  • Be open and honest about your feelings.
  • Use “I feel” statements and try to avoid negative “you” statements.
  • Explain why you feel the way you do and allow your partner to ask clarifying questions. The key here is to discuss your emotions without giving into them. It’s tough, but it’s doable.

3. Don’t run away

Avoiding or refusing to deal with conflict doesn’t make it go away. Avoiding issues will turn molehills into mountains. And everything becomes a huge fight.

The primary goal in any conflict is to resolve it. But there are other underlying benefits to addressing conflicts even when a resolution is not possible. You make your partner feel heard. You make him or her feel valuable, special and loved. These are far more important than any temporary dispute. Stay and fight fair.

4. Agreeing to disagree

More often than not, there may not be a clear right or wrong answer. Although your viewpoints may be on the opposite ends of the spectrum, they both are valid and worth considering. In some cases, after you’ve hashed out how both of you feel in a calm and rational manner, you may have to agree to disagree.

Reaching an impasse can feel like a complete waste of time initially, but going through the process of trying to correctly resolve the conflict will strengthen the relationship long-term. Although a resolution wasn’t reached, both parties leave the discussion feeling heard, validated and valued. Everybody wins!

In the case when action must be taken, give it some time. Allow yourself time to process all that your partner has said and work to find a solution that takes into account how they feel and also produces a solution you can both live with. This process takes time and may take multiple discussions. But the more you do it the easier and more natural the process becomes.

5. Choose your confidants wisely

Discussing the issue with someone else is a great way to gain a different perspective on the issue. The danger with talking to a third party is they could offer advice that could exacerbate the situation. When choosing a relationship confidant here are a few things you should look for:

  • Someone who knows you very well.
  • Someone who can be objective and level-headed.
  • Someone who has your best interest at heart.
  • Someone you respect.
  • Someone who will lovingly tell you the truth and not just what you want to hear.
  • Someone who has a successful relationship or at the very least understands how to handle conflict productively.

Once you’ve gotten good solid advice and have had a chance to reevaluate your position, go back and readdress the issue with your partner.

Final Word

It’s normal for a couple to quarrel from time to time—it comes with the territory. But it shouldn’t be the background music of your relationship. Conflicts and arguments don’t jeopardize a relationship. How you chose to respond does.

Successful couples have the ability to solve problems and let them go. They focus on taking care of the issue rather than attacking each other. Even when angry, they find ways to be upset and stay close at the same time.

Conflict gives you and your partner the opportunity to identify issues, address them, improve yourselves and the relationship and move on. All couples fight. Successful couples fight right.

Featured image by Vic on Flickr CC 2.0 license

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