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How to Resolve Conflicts

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Do you fight fair?

Couple arguing

Dr. Wendy Walsh: When couples tell me they have emotional intimacy, I often ask them about their fighting style. If they tell me they don't ever fight, I am quite assured that they don't have true intimacy. When two separate people join together for common life goals, clashes are inevitable. But conflict alone is not an indicator of a relationship's health. The better barometer is the nature of repair. How do couples make up after a fight? With apologies, contrition, consoling, and even laughter? Or is the aftermath of anger marked by silence, distance, and a new rule to never speak about the subject of the fight?

Learning how to have healthy conflict is crucial to having emotional intimacy. But what exactly is healthy conflict?

Well, for starters, fighting fair means using words that identify your feelings rather than blaming and pointing fingers. Easier said than done. Even though psychotherapists stress that we should focus on our feelings rather than level accusations, even the most educated of us resort to blaming sentences that begin with the word "YOU!" That alone doesn't indicate a "bad fight" unless it is also followed by vicious name-calling. Name-calling is a bad sign. It indicates that one partner has temporarily forgotten the other's identity and has substituted it by a skewed stereotype. It's hard to drop those evil caricatures once our minds have created them. If you see him as a loser and tell him over and over, you are also rewiring your brain to believe this is true. One other thing to consider is the amount of voice time allotted to each arguer. If the yelling is terribly lopsided and one partner gets more air time, then something else is going on ... either intimidation by the loud mouth, or an emotional retreat by the other. Both things are not fighting fair.

As injurious as a fight can be, the biggest determinant of whether it is a "good fight" is the way repair is made afterward. There are many unique ways that couples come back into relationship after a fight. Notes left by the morning coffee pot, flowers at the office, and my favorite -- off-the-charts make-up sex. But the important thing to remember is that love and respect can return.

Dangerous aftermaths include icy treatment for days on end. Little jabs thrown into unrelated conversations. Passive-aggressive, retaliatory behavior. And worst of all, a fight that morphs into other fights that get flooded with material from old injuries. "Remember the time you ..."

The best way to learn to have "good fights" is to establish ground rules before any fighting begins. Men love rules of the game. It reminds them of sports and makes fighting a healthy challenge rather than a confusing battle with a scary, invisible opponent. Some ground rules might include: no name-calling, no stonewalling, no fighting in front of the kids, no going to bed mad, and most importantly, scheduled make-up time the next day. It is also important to understand that each person has their own fighting style that must be respected. A man who walks out the door for a brisk walk during an argument may not be rejecting you, he may be protecting you from a shift from words to action. Some people need a time-out to regroup and think during a fight. The time to talk about fighting styles, of course, is when you are not fighting.

Studies on couples' conflict style show that the two most important ingredients to healthy fighting are empathy and humor. When you are feeling unheard, disrespected, or on the losing end of a power struggle, try as hard as you can to put yourself in your partner's shoes. Imagine you are on the other side of the dynamic battling with the likes of YOU. Best of all is to find comedy in your tragedy. If you can muster the brain power, step outside your fight and imagine you are a fly on the wall. Reframe your dialogue as a script from a "Saturday Night Live" skit or a prime-time sitcom. Now look how silly you sound!

The most important ingredient during a conflict is the knowledge that love can return, and that spirited negotiation is all part of building intimacy. When I once commented to my favorite bickering couple that I noticed there is love behind their arguments, the husband winked at me and said, "Not love. Sport." Even in conflict, there can be a bond and a secret agreement to respect each other.


next: Bah Humbug, Bank of America!
7 comments so far | Post a comment now
KM December 22, 2009, 4:13 PM

“The most important ingredient during a conflict is the knowledge that love can return, and that spirited negotiation is all part of building intimacy.”

Bingo! this is often never said, or advised by shrinks, and the couple divorces. I know of someone whose shrink told her to leave the marriage, no need for counseling and seek her own happiness. Mind you to just leave and walk out on her 2 small kids after only a few years. She did! She is on a selfish self centered path and has left so much destruction in her wake yet her shrink still encourages her she is right and everyone else is wrong. I wonder how often this is happening!

Relationship Expert January 17, 2010, 9:31 AM

Here are some important things you will need to consider to improve your relationship.

- Recognize the current state of your relationship and decide that it is worth investing more into the relationship and to take it to the next level (a level where those small little issues are not be an issue)

- Remove distractions and obstacles to relationship success. If you are not honest to your partner, the relationship will not last. Start removing “dead bodies” from “the closet” and concentrate on your relationship.

- Appreciate your partner and let him/her feel the appreciation. Show your emotional “investment” into the relationship and be open to be “invested in”.

- Communicate openly and honest with your partner. Show respect and listen to concerns or thoughts coming from the opposite site as well. Again, a relationship is not a one-way street.

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