Here are 11 things not to do when you are in conflict with your partner, along with suggestions on how to disagree more constructively.
You may be making things worse if . . .
1) You stonewall, withdraw or pursue. Unless one of you is a professional mime, the silent treatment is insulting to your partner. Similarly, abruptly leaving the scene can damage trust. It is okay to take a time out, but tell your partner what you are doing.
If your partner asks for a time out or break, give it to them. If may not be what you would want, but nothing constructive can come if only one of you is engaged or willing. Don’t chase your partner or try to prevent her or him from leaving.
2) You promise things you have no intention of delivering. Instead: be sincere. Don’t agree just for the sake of ending the argument. Don’t play games. All of these things erode trust and create much bigger problems down the road.
3) You don’t say what you want. Instead: Ask yourself – and your partner – what each of you wants. If you want to simply be heard, say so. If you want something to change, say what you want and why. Then give your partner the same opportunity. Many a fight that is going in circles can be altered by gently asking your partner, “What do you want?”
4) You blame or shame. There’s already too much of that in the world. Seek to be vulnerable, open and connected. Connection is far more important to a relationship than the vast majority of topics you may disagree about.
5) You overlook areas of common ground. Instead: Be attentive to areas about which you agree. This is a powerful part of negotiations to say, “It seems we both care about the children’s well-being and want things to change for the better. That is good. Now it seems we just see different possible ways to get there.” Doing so can take an adversarial tone out of the discussion.
6) You go tit for tat. Instead: Be willing to make the first move to compromise. I have seen countless disagreements melt away when one person says something like, “You are right, I did make a mistake,” or “I really want to resolve this and I’m willing to do x differently” or “I am sorry my actions caused you pain. That is the last thing I want.”
7) You use things your partner has shared with you against them. It may be a long time before they openly share with you again if you betray their trust.
8) You see conflict as bad. When you are close to someone and depend on them, conflicts will naturally arise. That is normal, healthy, and human. If you avoid conflicts, problems go underground and feelings get bottled up. In time, those problems and feelings will grow, making them more difficult to address
Disagreements can be an opportunity to learn and grow. People and relationships never stop growing. Even couples that have been married for more than 50 years often learn new things about each other. That can help keep a relationship fresh. Conflict is an opportunity to grow and strengthen your connection. In my experience, relationships do not really begin in earnest until a couple has their first big fight or crisis.
9) One of you is having a “feeling” conversation while the other is having a “doing” conversation. If feelings need to be expressed, listen. Solutions come much more readily and are generally better after feelings are acknowledged. When you are both ready, discuss solutions to the problem. Seek a win-win solution both of you can live with. Anything else just kicks the can down the road.
10) You make negative comparisons. Don’t tell your partner how you do things better than he or she does. If it’s true, then there’s no need to say it. Unless you seek to wound your partner (and why would you ever want to do that?) don’t tell your partner how they are not as good as one or more of your past lovers at listening or sharing feelings.
11) You focus on winning the argument. Disagreements do not have winners or losers. Would you rather walk away feeling you won an argument or feeling that you took the high road, stayed true to yourself and treated your partner with respect and love?
Relationships can be complicated and difficult. Sometimes getting a fresh perspective or guidance from a trained counselor can help get you back on track. This is not an admission of failure. Even top athletes, actors and executives sometimes need coaching.
In addition, try to hold on to a sense of connection, even if you are in a conflict with your partner. As Alexandra Penney wrote, “The ultimate test of a relationship is to disagree but to hold hands.”
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT