If you are currently or have ever been in a romantic relationship, you know that conflict between partners is inevitable; all couples experience distress from time to time. Thus, the mark of a healthy relationship is not the absence of conflict. In fact, avoidance of conflict is often dysfunctional. Instead, healthy couples are those who are open to learning effective strategies for navigating their conflict in a way that maintains the security of their bond.
Here are three practices you and your partner can start today:
1. Identify Repeating Patterns
Relationship dynamics tend to be cyclical, and if you ever find yourself thinking “we keep having the same argument over and over”, it is likely that you and your partner are caught in a repeating cycle. The good news is that once you can predict the repeating cycle, you and your partner are able to “outsmart” it together, and interrupt it before it escalates. To start, get curious with your partner about these repeated cycles that consume you.
When you and your partner are both calm, have a conversation about the process that typically unfolds when you get into an argument. Be careful not to get caught up in the content of the arguments. That is, focus on the emotional and behavioral cause-and-effect that happens moment-to-moment. For example, one couple may ultimately discover, “when I feel criticized, I shut down. Then, when you can’t reach me, you feel shut out, you push harder, and I just retreat more and more. In the end, I feel like I’m never good enough for you, and you feel like I just don’t care.” Talk about how you can both work together to change the repeating interaction in the future. Once the cycle has been identified, it becomes easier to call it out: “we’re doing that thing again, the one where I feel criticized and you feel iced out. How can we come back to each other?”
2. Use “I” Statements
When one or both people in a relationship argue to “win”, both people lose. Relationships are emotional, and working through conflict requires tuning in to your own emotional experience and letting your partner into that experience. It can be a knee-jerk reaction to become defensive when we feel criticized or blamed. When one person becomes defensive, it polarizes the other person to do the same, and suddenly the conversation becomes an endless back-and-forth that leaves both people feeling unheard and defeated.
Navigating relationship conflict is not something that comes naturally; it requires learning strategies and practicing, over and over again, the same way you would learn any other skill. One important skill to learn is the use of “I” statements. Instead of “you are so….” or “you always….”, try saying, “I feel (this way) when you say or do (this).” By speaking from your experience, your partner is more likely to understand the emotional effect their behavior has on you. It is also less likely to trigger defensiveness in your partner, so you can avoid the dreaded back-and-forth and that repeating cycle that consumes you.
3. Apologize (the right way)
The same way that conflict is inevitable in relationships, so it goes that you are bound to disappoint your partner from time to time. You’ll get it wrong; you’ll say the wrong thing; you’ll let them down. Learning to own up to your mistakes is key to any healthy relationship.
Have you ever apologized for something, only for the other person to eventually say “you never apologized for that!” This is because there are many ways to apologize, and the type of apology that feels sincere varies from person to person. Some people need to hear the words “I’m sorry,” whereas for others, this just won’t cut it. Some people need to hear an explanation for your mistake. Others need to hear what you’ll do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Or they may need you to acknowledge the way it hurt them, or find a way to make it up to them.
Understanding what your partner needs to hear when you let them down, and telling your partner what you need from them in these moments, is important for repairing the ruptures in the security of your bond.
All of these practices require humility and vulnerability. They require letting down your walls, tuning in to your own emotional experience and being open to understanding your partner’s. They require taking responsibility, setting aside your pride, and valuing the relationship above your need to “win” or be “right”. Letting yourself be vulnerable is not always something you can start practicing overnight, especially if vulnerability has been tied to abuse or trauma in your past. Many couples who often find themselves deep in the trenches of conflict can benefit from committing to consistently meeting with a couples therapist.