All relationships will experience conflict at varying points in time. While most conflicts will be minor, every now and then, something will occur that seems like a deal breaker.
Resolving conflicts can be difficult, depending on the nature of the relationship, the power im/balance, history and the ability of the parties to not only communicate, but also understand how they and the other parties are communicating.
The most challenging conflict may well be the spousal/romantic partner one – where there is not a clear hierarchy or role position, as there would be in a work relationship. There is also more emotional baggage at stake, as well as greater personal meaning involved.
When my spouse and I got together in 1994, we had a conversation about how we were going to have difficult conversations or ‘fights’ if you will. We each explained about how our respective families had fought and overcame fights – or not – and how our families came back together after fights – or not. We were determined to not fight like our families did, and it was 2 years into the relationship before we had a serious fight.
The fight was entirely my fault, and admitting that it was entirely my fault allowed us to not really fight, but rather, talk about what past experiences had triggered the emotional responses that could have forced the situation to escalate into a deal breaking fight.
For clarity, I had gone out with a friend for the day and ended up across the border into the US for the afternoon. I didn’t call my partner to let her know. I was back after dinner, but she had no way to contact me and if something had happened, there was nothing to indicate that she should be contacted in an emergency. I didn’t call because I had some issues around being controlled and monitored in the past, behaviours that my partner did not engage in.
So, I quite honestly could accept full responsibility for my lack of consideration – which was a trigger for my partner from previous relationships – we could talk about the emotional issues and experiences rationally without going over the top and the matter was settled, it has never been an issue in the same way again.
As a side note, there is no point in accepting any or full responsibility if you are only doing so to end a fight. It will only result in resentment which will erupt during later fights – this brings me to the ‘Rules of Engagement’ that I and my then partner and now spouse have worked out and have been more or less been able to successfully employ during our relationship:
The need to ‘not’ talk overrides the need to talk
Sometimes the conflict is emotionally too difficult and challenging to maintain any reasonability in the moment. Forcing someone to talk when it is too painful or uncomfortable will not resolve the matter; it will only result in resentment. So end the conversion, park the conflict, take a break for however long is needed, be it a few minutes, hours or even a day or two; and return refreshed and ready with a calmer perspective.
Avoid ‘always’ and ‘never’
No one is ever that consistent and instead of listening, the accused person will be thinking of exceptions to the ‘always’ or ‘never’ and be on the defensive, not listening to the substance of the complaint. In fact, avoid accusing at all – instead focus on “when you do thus and so, it has the impact of x and y”. When we accuse people, we aren’t focused on what they said or did, but rather what we think motivated them, and the impact, so when you say something like, “You are usually late for appointments and this makes me feel disrespected, as if you don’t consider that my time is as valuable as yours”, is better than “You have no respect for me, and my time, when you waste it by being late”. They are probably not meaning disrespect or the suggestion that your time isn’t valuable, but rather that they are unable to organize themselves or just don’t value time the same as you do – so asserting that disrespect is the reason focuses the conversation on an issue that may have no connection for the late person and what they end up feeling is that you’ve pre-judged and are now executing them for a crime they didn’t commit.
No rehashing past arguments
What happened before stays in the past, deal with the here and now in a way that it doesn’t come up again in the future.
Absolutely, go to bed mad.
You don’t do yourself any favours by arguing all hours, tired and overwrought. So don’t, stop fighting and go to bed in your normal sleeping place – it is often hard to come back after dramatic sleeping gestures, or worst, slamming out the door. A good night’s sleep with normalize behaviors is often the perspective needed to put the argument in its proper perspective. If it’s not a relationship deal breaker, then don’t let it escalate to a degree that it will break the relationship – if not in the moment, then built up over time by resentment and compounded escalation.
There is no winning an argument that breaks the relationship
Winning the argument is cold comfort when you are sleeping alone. When every difference of opinion feels like a make or break issue, then it’s probably past the time you should have broken the relationship.
The best way to maintain a relationship is to be self-aware and accept fair critique and responsibility when you haven’t done your best and be fair when providing critiques in return. Keep in mind that the goal is to strength your couple status, not score wins and dominate each other. Each of us has areas we are experts in and preferences, dividing the household tasks along skill and interest lines and sharing out the tasks that neither of you enjoy – pretty much like you’d do as part of a workplace project team – is what leads to communication and stronger, harmonious relationships.
Being a couple is being a team; remember you are both playing for the same side. If you are not on the same side, then retreat to your corner, re-group and decide if you really want to be a team or not and work together to make the team work or agree to an amicable separation. The camp rule of leaving a place as good or better than you found it applies to relationships too; neither party should leave a relationship to wounded to ever be able to be part of a team again.