Do you ever feel like arguments with your partner is more like getting into the boxing ring? If you have, you might have begun to dread conversations about important topics or tried to avoid them all together. But, wouldn’t it be nice to learn how to have those types of conversations without that pit-in-your-stomach feeling? In other words, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to “fight fair”?
As a couples counselor and PREPARE/ENRICH facilitator, I often help couples with this very issue. One of the most requested areas of growth we identify is learning how to “fight fair” even if both people are on different sides of the boxing ring. With that said, below are 5 tips for working through relationship conflict:
Tip #1: Check your mood. If you know there’s an issue to discuss, consider your overall mood and stress level before deciding to bring it up. For example, if you’ve had a busy day with little time to yourself, think about a way to de-stress before bringing up the issue. Going into a potentially heated discussion with a level head can help diffuse some of the emotions that might drive the tone and overall outcome. The same strategy applies when you’ve noticed your partner’s had a long day or is in a particular mood. When this happens, gently mention that there’s something you’d like to discuss and then ask when a good time might be to sit down and have the conversation.
Tip #2: Avoid the “kitchen sink” and stick to the situation at hand. I hear this one all the time. Let’s say your spouse is the kind of person who holds everything in and brings up several issues all at once. Feels like you’ve been bombarded and blind-sighted, right? If you’re one of those people who holds everything in and then lets it all out at once, you might want to tackle those issues as they come up. This will help you manage your own stress better and will also give your partner an opportunity to be more interactive and less reactive to hearing all of the things that you’re upset about all at once. Staying focused on the situation and issue in front of you will also help potentially shorten the length of the argument itself.
Tip #3: Ask clarifying questions. It’s possible that the real reason you’re arguing is because you both don’t understand what the other is talking about. When in doubt, ask a clarifying question or two so that you both are clear on the other’s perspective. For instance, you might say something like “What I think you’re saying is…” or “So what you’re telling me is…”. Even if you don’t agree with what the other person is saying, it’s important to at least acknowledge the viewpoint so that you both feel heard. One added bonus to asking clarifying questions is that they might help you both reach the conclusion that you can agree to disagree.
Tip #4: Know when to walk away. When a discussion gets heated, it can be helpful to walk away and revisit the issue. If you’ve escalated to a yelling match, excuse yourselves from the conversation and do something alone. Examples include: going for a walk or run, reading, listening to music, or watching a TV show. When you feel more calm and level-headed, ask your partner if they’re ready to continue the conversation and proceed from there. Give yourselves permission to walk away as many times as you need to from a conversation as long as you both agree to return to finish the discussion.
Tip #5: Discuss solutions. I think we’ve all been in arguments where it feels like we’re talking in circles. When this happens, say that you feel like the conversation is going in a circle and are wondering what kinds of solutions you both might be able to come up with. For example, if an argument is about who is going to leave work early and pick up the kids from school, a solution might be to have a rotating schedule. Another example is if someone feels like their partner is not being supportive of them during a stressful time, the solution might be that the stressed out person communicate what they need from their partner.