Happy couples don’t fight less than unhappy couples. They simply do conflict resolution and relationship repair better than unhappy couples.
Conflict was not a thing in my home growing up. Not that it didn’t happen or that it wasn’t there. We just didn’t address it. I grew up in a very religious and very conservative household. And contention was “of the devil.”
If I ever saw my parents fight, it was usually a big explosion. This sounds like the opposite of a “contention-free” home, but I think these big arguments were the result of leaving smaller conflicts unresolved for too long. And I never saw how my parents’ resolved their problems. I usually just witnessed a bunch of yelling until some one gave up and left the room or shut down completely.
When I fought with my siblings, we got in trouble for arguing. But I never once remember being told to apologize to my sibling. Or experienced my sibling apologize to me. And we definitely weren’t told to solve the problem together. As a family, we were just expected to sweep all of our conflicts under the rug. And get over it on our own.
So when I got married, I was significantly unprepared to handle conflicts that come with committed relationships. I was so unaccustomed to addressing conflict that I opted to hold our problems deep inside and secretly resent my husband instead.
“Look at him just sitting there on his phone while I’m doing all the housework by myself…”
“If I have to pick up his dirty socks one more time…”
“Why won’t he just help me?”
Fast forward to year five of marriage and our relationship was in trouble. We started couples therapy to figure what our next move was: fixing our marriage or getting divorced.
My therapist recommended that I read Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work by John Gottman. The book — which I highly recommend — is filled with examples of couples solving conflicts. When trying to teach a principle, Gottman usually shares a bad example of how to solve a conflict. Then he follows it with a good example of solving the conflict.
After finishing this book, I had an epiphany: I couldn’t even do conflict resolution badly. Because I avoided conflict at all costs. And it was costing me my marriage.
I’ve worked really hard to start engaging in more conflict resolution. It’s extremely uncomfortable and entirely foreign to me. As I’ve fumbled through resolving conflicts in my relationship and researched more about it, this is what I’ve learned:
1: Don’t Avoid Conflict
Conflict is a normal part of relationships. You and your partner are two completely different people. You have different backgrounds, upbringings, opinions, and expectations. Your differences, whether big or small, will lead to conflict.
The books and research I’ve read say that happy couples don’t fight less than unhappy couples. They simply do conflict resolution and relationship repair better than unhappy couples.
My friend’s therapist also told her, “If a couple doesn’t fight, one partner is being too submissive.”
So there you have it: conflict is not inherently a bad thing. It is simply a product of meshing two lives together. And even happy couples experience conflict.
However, avoiding conflict, being aggressive during arguments, or neglecting to resolve conflict is a bad thing. And a very unhealthy way to manage your relationship.
Leaning into conflicts in your relationship is a way for you or your partner to be heard and for both of you to work on solving problems together.
2: Take Deep Breaths
For some of us, arguing can be a scary or overwhelming thing, causing us to shut down. Or you may feel you need to put up your defense and protect yourself. This is our body’s “fight or flight” system coming into play.
However, being ready to run or attack is not a healthy place to try and solve relationship problems. To calm your biology down, you need to switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” Do this by taking deep breaths. Once you feel your body start to relax, you’ll be able to think more clearly.
3: Avoid Name Calling And Personal Attacks
Because we spend so much time with our partner, we likely know all their insecurities and weaknesses. However, when a conflict arises, we may be tempted to use this knowledge as a way to hurt our partner.
But this will erode their trust in you and cause deep, lasting pain long after the conflict is over.
Refrain from calling your partner names. Avoid using their weaknesses or insecurities as ammo for your verbal attack. You can be frustrated, angry, and even get a little loud, but calling each other names or purposely trying to hurt your partner’s feelings will not help you resolve the conflict.
4: No Physical Aggression
This is a given. When conflicts arise, do not resort to any type of physical aggression. This includes hitting, spitting, kicking, throwing things, and so on.
And do not tolerate any of this behavior from your partner.
5: Being Emotional Is Not The Same As Expressing Your Emotions
When conflict arises, it’s important to express how you feel. This helps your partner understand how the conflict has affected you. Sharing your emotions with each other can lead to empathy and finding better solutions together.
However, being emotional is not the same as expressing your emotions. Throwing an adult tantrum by yelling and screaming in frustration and anger is not constructive.
If anything, unleashing your emotions on your partner can leave them feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Which can cause them to withdraw in fear or retaliate as a form of defense. Neither of which will help you solve the problem.
Instead, try explicitly naming your emotions by saying, “I am so angry” or “I am feeling very frustrated” instead of just yelling everything at your partner.
6: Notice Bids For Connection
Sometimes in the middle of a conflict, one partner will try to lighten the mood by making a bid for connection. This can be making a joke, trying to give physical affection, or some other form or connection.
You don’t always have to fully embrace a bid, especially when you’re upset. But try to let the bid help you relax and acknowledge the bid out loud to your partner.
One example includes:
Partner One: “Come on, let’s hug it out.”
Partner Two: “I appreciate your effort. I’m just not comfortable hugging right now. But I
would like to continue our discussion.”
7: Quick Sorry’s
Trying to engage in healthy conflict resolution is not easy. Especially if our relationship is new or our conflict resolution skills are new.
Making mistakes is a given. But when these flaws happen, be quick to apologize for your mistakes.
If you call your partner a name, quickly apologize by saying, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
If you realize that you’ve been yelling at your partner, stop yelling and apologize by saying, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be yelling at you.”
Quick sorry’s are a great way to acknowledge your mistakes in the moment and help to keep the repair process going.
8: Take a Break
This is one of the most helpful tips when conflicts are getting out of hand. Explain to your partner that you are overwhelmed and need a 15 minute break before continuing the conversation. Or honor your partner’s request for a break.
Taking a break gives you time to calm down and reset. It helps you create distance from your original emotions that were difficult to navigate at first. It’s another way to switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.”
There are two important things to remember when taking a break. First, try to spend that time doing anything except thinking about your fight. If you stew over what just happened, it will be difficult to calm down and regain your level-headed thinking. Which is the point of the break. So distract yourself by reading a magazine or going for a walk.
Next, you need to actually return to your discussion. If not, the conflict won’t get resolved and may turn into a bigger fight later. So before taking your break, establish a designated time with your partner for when you will resume solving the problem again.
9: Be Clear About the Problem and What You Need
Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the details and emotions of a conflict that we never actually get to the real issue. When bringing up a problem for discussion or when a conflict naturally arises, do your best to be as clear as possible about what the problem is and what you need from your partner.
Some examples include:
“I feel ___ when you ___ because I think ___.”
“I would appreciate it if you ____.”
“It would mean a lot to me if ____.”
“It hurt my feelings when you ____.”
“I really loved when you ____. Can you do that again?”
The more you practice healthy conflict resolution, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll be more aware of when you make mistakes and how to avoid repeating them. Be patient with yourself and your partner as you try to develop these new skills.
If you need more info about healthy conflict resolution, here are some books that can help you work on your conflict resolution skills:
Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work by John Gottman
The Assertiveness Guide For Women by Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg
The Relationship Cure by John Gottman
Conclusion: Healthy Conflict Resolution Improves Your Relationship
Having conflict in your relationship can feel scary and overwhelming. But choosing to engage with your partner during these moments in a healthy way will strengthen your relationship.
Healthy conflict resolution requires you to be patient, vulnerable, and empathetic. All of which help a relationship to thrive.
Working through problems in a healthy way will help your love and trust for each other grow.