When your relationship means a lot to you, conflicts with your partner can often cut you to the core emotionally. And your hard-wired reaction of fighting or running away (even just emotionally) will likely erode your relationship over time. However, you can learn more constructive ways to ease tensions.
The key to dealing constructively with differences is adding thought back into the equation. By tolerating your feelings as you talk through issues, you can overcome misunderstandings and bridge differences. One way to do this is to gain an understanding of how each of you responds to conflict in your relationship.
Talk during calm times about each other’s patterns and how you might each respond better when you experience conflict. For instance, you might learn that emotions are too high during conflict for the two of you to have a constructive conversation. So, the next time conflict arises, you can approach it differently – you might choose to reassure each other of your love despite the current difference of opinion, or you might take a few minute break. Or, by understanding each other’s reactions better, you might simply have more empathy for and a greater understanding of your partner’s response.
The social worker and Emotionally Focused couple therapist, Douglas Tilley, LCSW, developed a “therapy form” (published in the book Becoming an Emotionally Focused Therapist) that can help people identify their patterns during conflict.
Here are some questions, based on this form, that can help you identify some of your patterns by encouraging you to think about different dimensions of your reactions during conflict:
Your actions: What do you do? (e.g. criticize, analyze, withdraw) To help answer this question, imagine a video replay of your conflicts.
Your emotions: What feelings do you have? (e.g. scared, lonely, hopeless, angry) It might help to imagine yourself back in a conflict. Be open to whatever emotions arise, and then label them.
Sensations in your body: What do you sense in your body? (e.g. heart speeding up, uneasy in my stomach) As you allow for your emotions to arise, also pay attention to whatever bodily sensations accompany those emotions.
(It has been my experience in doing therapy that when people have trouble identifying their emotions, it can help for them to first pay attention to their sensations. As they focus on those sensations, the emotions then sometimes become more apparent.)
Your style of coping with conflict: What patterns do you and your partner tend to act out? (e.g. I often avoid talking, I often get angry and critical) Think of not just you or your partner, but of how the two of you act toward each other. Consider how each action affects the other person and leads to particular reactions.
You and your partner might want to consider each of these questions separately and then talk about your responses. Do it at a time when tensions are low so that you can keep it a constructive experience. As part of your discussion, you might discuss things you can each do within yourselves and for each other to help your conflicts or disagreements remain more constructive.
Your relationship is bound to have conflicts – all relationships do – but you can find a way through these tensions together. You can feel and express mutual respect, support, and love – even when you remain at odds. If you and your partner can maintain the perspective that you are ultimately on each other’s side, then you will be free to tend to each other and maintain a loving relationship.