Conflict is essential. Conflict avoidance can hamper intimacy and relationship growth. Yet, conflict is often no fun, and many of us enter into relationships with too few skills for navigating conflict successfully.
Whether it seems like arguing, debating, fighting, emotional processing, or tough negotiating, difficult conversations are bound to be part of most fulfilling relationships. In intimate relationships, there exists the opportunity to prepare ahead of time, knowing that these kinds of interactions are likely to occur. There also probably exists the chance to practice. This article presents a few options for approaching or shifting the experience of difficult conversations.
You can discuss ahead of time strategies, policies, or ground rules to improve the smoothness of these conversations. Here are a few examples:
- aiming to give context statements to make things less confusing, such as "I want to express my frustration now, please remember that this isn't my processed, final position"
- signaling your need and intent when you want to leave a conversation by telling the other why you want a break and when you might want to return to it so as to avoid a sense of abandonment
- planning particular cooling-off strategies if one person isn't feeling able to handle how heated things are getting, like "i'll take a ten minute walk if the degree of my upset is bothering me, while you rest and then we'll try again"
- agreeing to do some reassuring behavior even when one feels angry at the other (such as being willing to hold or squeeze hands, or say "yes, I still love you")
During the conversation
When things get difficult during a conversation, there are many strategies that can help keep the dynamic both more tolerable and more productive. Here are some examples:
- one can declare a need for a turn
- one can declare a need for a break
- one can ask for help reminding themselves that this is just the other person's process to clear rubble, and not their deeper thinking or truth
- either party may institute repeated turn taking via a timer until both parties agree they don't need it any more (this is especially useful when both people have become upset)
- one can name which part of what the speaker is doing is too hard or what one needs to feel ok (some examples: please talk less loudly; say whatever you need to, except please don't use the word X; would you just hold my hand while we talk; would you reassure me that you still love me; even though you're upset and need to express this, can you tell me Y; etc.) and the speaker finding a way to express themselves while incorporating that request
- sitting quietly together for 3 minutes breathing deeply and looking at each other or holding hands
- changing location or moving the discussion to a walking conversation
- trade roles, meaning spend a certain amount of time presenting the other person's point of view
- invite a trusted third party into the conversation
After the conversation
Note that, in all relationships with much duration, there are likely to be mistakes, missteps, and accidents. One way to deal with this fact is by thinking of recovery and reconciliation as at least as important as the mistakes themselves.
So, if you feel that a conversation didn't go well, one way to help future conversations go better is to take kind and honest responsibility for your part in the conversation not going well, and also extend warmth and affection to help repair any breach in the sense of intimacy.
As a last note, it can also be useful to explicitly appreciate things that your partner does during conflicts that are helpful and constructive.
Here are some of the many books that may be of use in making your conflicts more productive.
Taking the War out of Our Words
Sharon Strand Ellison / Powerful Nondefensive Communication
The Places That Scare You
Pema Chodron / Mindfulness
Tara Bracht / Mindfulness
Getting the Love You Want
Harville Hendrix / Imago Theory