Some couples seem to have continual conflict while others want to avoid it at all costs. Other couples fall somewhere in the middle of the conflict spectrum. While intimidating and uncomfortable, conflict is an inevitable part of any healthy relationship. The key is to fight fairly when you and your partner have conflict. Take these steps to fight fairly and have more productive arguments:
Try to avoid “kitchen sink” arguments where you throw in “everything and the kitchen sink.” This tactic is a defense mechanism and only serves to escalate conflict. It is not productive and won’t lead to a successful conclusion. If your fight is about finances, stick to finances. Don’t include in-law issues, parenting problems, or anything else if that’s not what your argument is about. Leave the past out of it as well, and don’t rely on generalizations about your partner’s character. Resolve the issue at hand and if something else crops up, agree to set it aside, and address it separately at another time.
When a fight gets heated, it can quickly escalate into a screaming match where you both want the last word. Instead of viewing your conflict as something negative, try seeing it as a conversation where both of you have the same goal – to understand one another. Let your partner speak without interruption and ensure they allow you to do the same. Take turns and listen to understand your partner, not to formulate your rebuttal or response. Instead of interrupting and interjecting comments to get your point across while your partner is speaking, wait your turn and converse with them as you would outside of a conflict situation.
Attack the problem, not your partner
View the fight as a conversation with the same end goal. To fight fairly means, rather than attacking your partner, you work together to tackle the problem. Remember your partner is not the problem. Accept that it takes two people to have a conflict. Your partner may contribute to the problem at hand, but they are not the sole cause of the situation. Realize that you may be at fault, as well. Be willing to own your part. When you begin to play the blame game, your partner will shut down or play it right back. Blaming, criticizing, and returning a defensive response, will not get to the root of resolution or compromise.
Be open, be honest
When stating your wants and needs in a relationship conflict, be completely open and honest, and speak with kindness. Don’t expect your partner to assume what you want or need from them. Yes, sometimes you must clearly communicate your needs. Your partner is not a mind-reader. Remember, to communicate what you DO want and need. DO NOT list the things you are not getting from your partner and expect them to figure out what you do want. If you’re a people pleaser, try challenging yourself to be vulnerable and truthful to get your needs met. Alternatively, ensure you allow your partner to do the same. Ask and genuinely listen to your partner’s wants and needs without being presumptuous. Ask questions and be curious to be sure you are understanding your partner. Just as they may not realize what you need from them, you may not realize what they need from you.
Watch your body language
Actions speak louder than words. Regardless of what you’re saying, it won’t matter unless your body language matches. Kind words uttered through clenched teeth don’t add up. Your body language will carry more weight in that situation. Don’t roll your eyes, act exasperated, make huge sighs, and scoff or laugh-off what your partner has to say. Eye-rolling, scoffing, sarcasm, and laughing-off something are all signs of contempt toward your partner, a dangerous road to go down during conflict or at any time. Focus on your tone of voice, even try to talk in a lower level than you normally would. Arguments that involve sarcasm or passive aggression are almost always counterproductive.
Relationships require compromise, and even during times of conflict. Compromise is about listening and engaging in respectful dialogue. Compromise is not about giving in or giving up to avoid or end a disagreement. You and your partner certainly don’t have to agree all the time, but you each need to, at least, seek to understand the other’s point of view. Research shows that two-thirds of a couple’s conflict is about unresolvable problems. This is the reason learning to compromise and continuing dialogue is so important to a successful relationship. You will likely compromise over and again on the same topics of disagreement in your relationship. Similarly, if you realize that you were wrong, put your pride aside, and own your part of what is going on between you and your partner; stay humble and apologize when you know you’re at fault.
You don’t have to agree with everything your partner says or does, and disagreeing does not mean you love them any less. So often we view conflict as something scary or negative when it’s a healthy part of any relationships. The key is to learn to have conflict and disagreement in a way that is productive and doesn’t harm your relationship. Continue to maintain a healthy and balanced relationship by learning to fight fairly and reframing your view of conflict.
Linda Ramsey, MA, a counselor at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin, helps couples learn to communicate effectively and productively even during times of conflict. Do you and your partner need some help with this? Contact Linda at 512-270-4883, ext. 106, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.