When we’re young, we dream about what our future relationships will look like: a fairy tale romance, a perfect life with a soul-mate who understands us, sympathizes with us, never argues, and loves us unconditionally.
However, when we grow up, we have to face a different reality—that no relationship is all rainbows and butterflies all the time. Relationships require hard work, and all couples fight and disagree. But disagreements don’t mean that a relationship is doomed. In fact, conflict is an opportunity for a relationship to grow stronger, as long as both partners are willing to work on their communication and conflict resolution skills.
Why is there conflict in relationships?
The main issues that create disagreement in relationships are sex, money, and raising children. This is a common well-known fact; however, couples can, and often do, fight over lots of different things. It can be big or small: from taking out the garbage, to visiting in-laws, to painting the living room.
Why do couples disagree about small things, big things and all things in between?
Dr. Pearle Brown, a licensed family and marriage therapist at Family and Child Development, says that disagreements in relationships are due to differences in how each partner was raised. Everyone grows up with a different set of values, beliefs, and responsibilities, which shapes their opinions and behaviors. Even something as simple as making morning coffee can be a source of conflict, if one person was raised to clean the pot immediately, and the other grew up leaving the pot to sit for a few days.
What’s needed to resolve conflict?
If you and your partner are fighting a lot, there are some basic things you will both need to realize before you can start conflict resolution.
Both partners need to:
- Be willing to work on communication
- View conflict as an opportunity for growth
- Maintain respect for each other’s opinions and feelings
- Sympathize with each other’s side of things
- Acknowledge their own part in the conflict
- Focus on the problem, not the person
Once the above list is realized by both partners, then conflict resolution can begin. But it shouldn’t be viewed as a chore, just as conflict shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing.
I try to help couples to see conflict as inevitable, but not necessarily bad. Conflict in many ways stretches us, it helps to develop our patience, our tolerance, our ability to recognize that other people do have other ways of thinking about things. The goal is not to avoid conflict but to develop strategies for solving problems and for dealing with conflict, says Dr. Brown.
Conflict does help us to grow. It does teach us a lot about being considerate and about learning to negotiate and respecting differences. When I’m dealing with couples in conflict, I want them to see that it is an opportunity to learn about each other and to learn something new and different.
Dr. Brown recommends identifying the problem and categorizing it as either behavioral, social, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. This can help you better understand the conflict and potential compromises. For example, if one partner wants to go out to parties and events every weekend, and the other partner wants to stay home, that is a social issue. One person is more social and that’s part of their personality. In fact, that might even be what was initially attractive to the shy partner.
Sometimes the differences are what attracted us to the other person. It completes another part of us, says Dr. Brown. This is important to remember when dealing with conflict. Instead of focusing on the negatives about your differences you should try to celebrate your differences and compromise in a way that you both keep something and you both give something up.
During conversations about compromise, it’s important to work on how you communicate with your partner. Avoid “you” statements and instead use “I” statements.
I feel this way…
I want this to be done because…
Practice reflective listening as a part of your communication skills. Listen to your partner, and then reflect back what they said in your own words. This will help you understand their feelings, and shows them that you respect their opinion and you understand why they feel a certain way.
Use statements like:
What I’m understanding from you is…
What I’m hearing you want is…
There should be reciprocity in this process. Once you’ve reflected your understanding of your partner’s feelings, you should explain your side of things. Then they can reflect back to you. Once you’ve affirmed you’ve heard and understood each other and everything’s on the table, then you have a basis to negotiate. You can make suggestions and try to figure out a compromise that keeps you both happy.
Don’t make demands, make suggestions. Start your negotiations with statements that invite the partner’s feedback such as:
What do you think about us doing…
Would you be willing to try…
Most importantly, couples should not make a marathon out of problem solving, says Dr. Brown. It doesn’t have to be done in one sitting. They need to know when to take a time out. If someone is becoming argumentative or aggressive, then they have permission to say ‘I need to take a break and come back to it.’ Couples can go all night if you don’t stress that need for a break.
If you find you need additional support and help in your relationship, please reach out to us at Family & Child Development.