Conflict Resolution: Your Relationship Depends on It!
This article is for information only and doesn’t call for any action.
I’ve had several consequential relationships in my life—all but one failed miserably. The ones that failed were unique and had different problems and dynamics, but there was one unifying issue: The inability to resolve conflict.
These relationships started strongly but before long they became caught in an endless loop of what I call “problem focus.” That is, each side blames the other, the anger and defensiveness build and the tension escalates. Over time the anger recedes, but only until the next conflict. Because there is no system of resolution, the bad times become more frequent than the good, love erodes and breakup looms.
We fear conflict because we often haven’t been taught how to manage it. It’s worth spending some time reflecting on how conflict was managed in your house growing up.
The template for me was a poor one. My father dominated through rage and to oppose him was to invite abuse. I became conflict-adverse in my relationships, and stuffed my needs, concerns, and feelings, only to have them surface later when I could hold them down no more. I expected my lovers to anticipate what I needed and when disappointed, my own anger and rage would surface. This was a recipe for disaster.
Ultimately I ended up divorced and alone but committed to figuring out a way to make a relationship work. I did so in therapy and with a period of time alone to sort out my issues.
Here’s what I learned. To have a successful relationship, learn that conflict is an opportunity for growth. If you and your partner commit to a system for resolving it, it will help cement the relationship because problems are discussed and resolved.
First, make a vow that each of you will take one-hundred percent responsibility for your behavior—not a penny more or a penny less. Distortion can cloud our self-vision: Either “it’s all my fault, I screwed up again” the low-self-esteem profile, or, I’m never wrong,” the narcissistic profile. If you are partnered with someone in either camp, resolving conflict may be difficult or even impossible. Consider couple’s counseling.
Make another vow that every conflict will be resolved completely so that both of you are satisfied. This will require compromise but leads us to how to resolve conflict.
Commit to each other and to solving your conflict. Early in my relationship with my wife, we had a sharp argument that was unresolved by the time I left for work. At work, I fell into a despair-laden rumination that this relationship was in the beginning stages of falling apart, just like all the others before it. Later, I told her my thoughts and she responded, “We just had a fight, that’s all. We’ll work on it, we’ll figure it out and we’ll always be together.” After that, I knew I had found the right person and my confidence in “us” soared
When conflict arises it’s normal to have tension and even anger. In this first stage, partners will toss blame back and forth; this is normal and expected. Here comes the opportunity for one of you, or even both of you to note, “OK we’re having a problem, what is the solution?” This tends to shut down the anger/blame, helps to re-partner you, and you can begin to seek a solution, together. A solution has to be agreed upon by both parties. If it isn’t workable, then back to the drawing board until you find one that does.
Consider and communicate context within each conflict. Often we don’t have the full story of what is going on with our partner. A stressful day at work, cut off in traffic, and I bark my shin on the way into the house whereupon my wife calls me out for not mowing the lawn as promised. “Get off my case!” I shout. To her ears and eyes, I’m hot-headed and unreasonable. When I take the time to fully communicate my day, my response becomes relatable.
The timing of conflict resolution is key. A solution can’t be proposed until both sides have calmed down. Both have to be ready for it.
Defer conflict when possible. This must be done carefully and respectfully lest the other side feel dismissed. I’ll say, “I see we’re both tense; can we try talking about this later? Once calmer, it’s easier to get to solutions. This prevents the “five-alarm” type argument.
Discuss and refine the “rules of engagement” as your relationship progresses. In other words, discuss what it means to have a fair fight; a clean fight. This will vary depending on personal style and how you’ve fought in the past and how you were raised. In my marriage, for example, swearing is OK. Using the word “f**k” when tensions rise is OK, “f**k you” is not.
A conflict isn’t resolved until each party agrees that the conflict has been resolved. Remember the vow to take one-hundred percent ownership? Now’s the time! Did you lose your temper and yell? Name-call, say something regrettable? Own it! “I’m sorry.” “I shouldn’t have said that.” “I didn’t mean it.”
The best and most important part of conflict: forgiveness. Here we end our judgment and blame of the other person because now we understand better their point of view. Because we understand better, we also know that we too are fallible, defensive, and at times mistaken. Because we want to be forgiven, we forgive the most important person in our life. Because we do, our relationship grows stronger and abides rather than taking another staggered step toward the end.
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November 29, 2018 at 08:03PM