Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This Relationship Corner – How to Have Conflict

Conflict is never fun. My wife and I have been married for nine years and we've had our share of conflicts. The reason our relationship is healthy and getting stronger every day is because we know how to handle conflict, how to address our issues and make sure that they don't wreck what we've spent over a decade building. We also don't harbor the illusion that happy couples don't have conflict, nor do we see conflict as necessarily bad.

In fact, your relationship needs it. Conflict is like going to the dentist. If you have regular checkups, you’ll have some minor discomfort and maybe have to put up with a lecture about your flossing habits. There will be that unpleasant sucking thing and you'll have this gritty feeling in your teeth for the next few hours. 

But if you avoid going to the dentist, the next thing you know it’s time for a root canal. That involves a lot of long needles, drilling, other unpleasant things that -trust me- you don't want to know about, and the worst of all: it's going to cost you a lot of money- just like the 'D' word. 

If you address issues when they are simply small irritants, they won't blow up in your face. If you regularly maintain your relationship with honest conversations, if you tackle the problems when they first appear, you won't have anything festering beneath the surface. Conflict is how this happens, and healthy conflicts means healthy relationships.

When we think of conflict, we often imagine Jerry Springer - chairs thrown, language bleeped, someone's top flies off, and for some reason a racist little-person is running around smearing cake on everyone. However, that's not what conflict has to look like. Conflict can simply be the two of you having a calm, rational discussion about what's bothering you. Yes, it can be heated and tense, but if you know how to do it, it'll be over soon and you can get back to your lives.

I could go on and on (and on) about conflict, but I thought I would focus on three key aspects to get us started. If you remember these three principles, you'll be in a much better place for your relationship. The three factors you should know are: know what the conflict actually is about, realize it isn’t about winning, and beware the four horsemen.

1. Know what the conflict is about.
Perhaps you've had this happen to you. There you are, coming home after a long evening to find that it's about to get very real, very quickly. The storm clouds are gathering and this is going to be a category five. Why? You didn't put your socks up, and instead, you left them on the floor. Really? The two of you might wind up featured on COPS because of a pair of socks?

The truth is, the conflict isn't about the socks, it's about something else. Many couples argue over minor issues because they can't or won't see that there's a bigger issue. Perhaps it isn't about the socks. Perhaps it's about appreciation, division of household labor, or maybe you aren't spending enough time together, but you don't realize that this is what's making you angry because those are hard reasons to pin down. Instead, your anger finds a new target - those two socks carelessly tossed on the floor when the hamper is literally three feet away.

When you find yourself having these arguments, stop to figure out what's actually going on. When you see the real issue, it's a lot easier to solve the problem because you're addressing a real issue, not trying to win a fight about socks, which leads me to my second point.

2. It isn't about winning
The Charlie Sheen joke is too easy. Instead, I'll state that as soon as you try to "win" an argument, you've already lost. Yes, you might emerge the victor, but it's going to be a Pyrrhic victory. (No, that isn't an obscure analogy, look it up.) The goal of a relationship should be to grow closer, become allies, build a life together, and help each other be better people, and winning an argument isn't a part of that. You need to put your ego aside and figure out what's best for the relationship, not you.

That's key to it all: surrendering your ego. It's a common sitcom and RomCom trope that arguments are meant to be won, and that surrender isn't an option. That's why people in sitcoms and romantic comedies have terrible relationships. Yes, you may feel you are right, but consider your partner's perspective. Perhaps their issue isn't about who's right, but about how they feel.

Treat the relationship as your child. As a parent, you (hopefully) put your child's interests above your own. You gladly surrender your ego for your child's sake. Same thing is true of your relationship. Winning the argument and being able to say "I was right" is not in your best interest. It's not healthy. The goal of conflict is for the relationship to be better and healthier, to correct the problems before they destroy the two of you. This is what conflict looks like in healthy relationships.

In unhealthy relationships, conflict is a zero-sum game with winners and losers. You come out of conflicts not feeling like you both benefited, but that you or your significant other "won," and if that's a persistent feeling, if it's something the two of you cannot correct, then something is seriously wrong. And finally, speaking of things that are seriously wrong:

3. Beware the Four Horsemen
No, I'm not talking about War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. (I would make a joke about them forming a band, but Terry Pratchett beat me to it.) I'm speaking of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. When you see any of these factors in your relationship, it's a harbinger of doom. Its a sign that your relationship is in serious trouble, is unhealthy, and might end soon. (And if all four are present, then perhaps ending it isn't such a terrible idea.)

The four horsemen, as defined by relationship expert John Gottman are: criticism and complaints, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Like the name Uwe Boll in any movie's credits, you do not want to find these in your relationship. What are they specifically?

  • Criticism and complaints refers to attacks on your partner's character, particularly in conflict. Rather than just complain about not taking the trash out, you say "You never take the trash out because you're a lazy slob." Such a statement isn't a sign of healthy discourse.
  • Contempt refers to looking down on your partner and attacking his/her self worth. Making the other person feel like nothing isn't going to make everything better. It will reduce your relationship to nothing. Besides, it doesn't say a lot for you if you're with someone you constantly belittle. If you despise them so much, why are you with them in the first place? And if you don't really despise them, then cut it out!
  • Defensiveness happens when you take any criticism personally and get defensive about it, even when said critique is valid. If your partner is upset because you didn't pay the electric bill, and you clearly didn't pay the bill because the power's shut off, acting like you're the victim isn't healthy. Part of healthy conflict is accepting valid complains and being a mature adult about it. 
  • Stonewalling is when you walk away from the conflict and refuse to engage. In the short term, it seems like an easy solution to just check out, but that only makes problems fester and build up. What could have been resolved with a five minute conversation now looks to ruin your March. And you had plans for March.  Not to mention the rest of your marriage.

Look, clearly this is easier said than done, especially when you find yourself in the middle of a heated argument. The key is to have a healthy conflict mindset before the inevitable argument. (And yes, conflict is inevitable.) You need to plan ahead. If you do, you may be surprised at how easily most of those issues get resolved, and you'll be relieved when the big issues become challenges you face together rather than raging fights that tear you apart.

There's a lot more to conflict that these three points, but as I said earlier, if you can get these right,you're well on your way to a healthier relationship.

I can do more than talk relationships. Check out the book I wrote.

Previous Relationship Corners
Being Ready for a Relationship

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