As a psychotherapist, I am constantly amazed by the number of couples who either seem surprised that they don’t agree on every little thing, or who seem unable to healthfully resolve even the smallest of conflicts. What they fail to understand is that healthy intimate relationships are a bond between two different people, each with his or her own interests, thoughts and opinions. Yes, there is probably a lot of common ground, but two separate people will never be completely alike. Furthermore, people change throughout their lives, meaning that even if two people start out remarkably similar, differences will inevitably arise as they mature in different ways. As such, if intimate relationships are going to work over the long haul, both parties must we willing to learn, grow and adapt.
And isn’t this constant evolution the spice makes long-term relationships fun and interesting? Honestly, a static relationship where roles never change and the status quo is never challenged is a boring relationship. And who wants that? This isn’t the 1950s!
Recognizing this fact, I often challenge clients who are struggling to accept and/or resolve the conflicts within their primary intimate relationship to look at these disagreements as a chance to learn about not only themselves but their partner, and to then transform the relationship into something even more meaningful, where each person has the freedom and space to become vulnerable and to grow as an individual while also caring deeply about their intimate connection to the other person – including that person’s similar (yet unique) desire to become vulnerable and develop.
Unfortunately, by the time people bring their troubled, conflict-riddled relationships to therapy, their ability to learn and grow as individuals and partners through conflict resolution is generally somewhat stunted, and they often require some very basic advice on working through their disagreements without damaging the relationship in an irreparable way. As such, I often present struggling pairs with a set of guidelines for respectful conflict resolution, asking them to formally agree to these rules. Typically, I present this to the couple as a contract – shown below – and I ask them to sign it. That way, they can take the agreement home with their signatures showing that yes, indeed, they have agreed to these guidelines. And then they can work on their ability to handle relationship conflict not just in therapy, but in the wider world.
Respectful Conflict Agreement
The purpose of this agreement is to create a safe and intimate environment for conversations when we are in conflict, establishing respectful guidelines and boundaries that allow for the healthy expression of feelings.
- We agree that we are allies and on the same team.
- We agree to review this agreement weekly and before attempting to resolve any conflict. We each agree to do our utmost to uphold this agreement.
- If either of us needs a timeout to cool off, we agree in advance that the first timeout will be for 15 minutes. The person requiring the timeout agrees to say, “I need a timeout for 15 minutes. I am not leaving the discussion or the relationship. I just need a short timeout.”
- We agree to limit discussions of loaded topics to 20 minutes. A timer can be used if either of us wishes it. When the time is up, if the conflict is not resolved, we will agree to either continue the discussion for another 20 minutes or to schedule a later time to complete the conversation.
- We agree to not discuss loaded topics before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m. (This one can be adjusted depending on the couple’s needs and lifestyle.)
- We agree we will not engage in name-calling, that we will not use offensive language, and that we will not be emotionally abusive.
- We agree we will not be physically abusive. This includes but is not limited to shoving, hitting, door slamming, and throwing things. We also agree to not engage in threatening behavior that we know our partner fears, such as threats of abandonment or exile. If either of us is in fear of the other due to the conflict, we agree to be honest about our feelings.
- We agree to identify the issue that needs to be discussed, and to keep the conversation about that issue only. At the same time, we understand that the problem at hand may trigger, for one of both of us, a “core issue” from childhood or elsewhere in our past. When this occurs, we agree to differentiate between the present and the past.
- We agree to not attempt conflict resolution while driving, while in bed, during the workday, at a place of employment, at times when hostile behavior may escalate (after a few drinks, for instance), or when one of us is feeling particularly low, vulnerable, tired, hungry or otherwise not up to the task.
- We agree to not attempt conflict resolution in public or in the presence of family members (especially our kids). If conflict erupts at these times, we agree to acknowledge the upset feelings and to not abandon or walk away from the upset person, but instead to treat that person with kindness.
- We agree to close a conflict resolution conversation with a couple-affirming prayer. (If the couple does not wish to engage in prayer, I generally suggest a couple-centric affirmation, such as, “We love each other, and we know that our differences and disagreements are a part of what makes us special.”)
- We agree to ask for help if either of us feels that we are unable to remain respectful in our attempt to resolve a particular conflict.
We enter into this agreement willingly and lovingly:
Signature of Partner A:
Signature of Partner B:
The principles in the above agreement probably seem relatively logical and straightforward to most readers. However, even common sense guidelines can be hard to follow in the heat of the moment. Because of this, when clients sign this agreement I always stress the first item – they are on the same team. My intent here is to help them understand that they should not be fighting each other, they should instead be fighting the problem, whatever that issue might be. I find that when two people agree that they are on the same team – the team that wants to make things better – then acrimony tends to dissipate, and it is easier to follow the other rules and to work together toward a common goal.
I also tend to point out item number twelve to my clients, allowing one or both parties to ask for assistance if and when conflict resolution goes awry. And for some couples, especially those who are battling years of rancor (perhaps coupled with serial abuse or infidelity), this happens relatively often. No matter how “on the same team” they try to be, sometimes they need the impartial input of a third party (usually a therapist). Happily, with practice even these couples are able to improve their communication and conflict resolution skills. And in turn they nearly always are able to strengthen their intimate connection and, eventually, to see relationship conflicts as an integral, inevitable and necessary (though not enjoyable) part of a healthy relationship.
It is important for me to state here that the above conflict resolution agreement is one of only hundreds of models. As such, it is far from definitive. Ultimately, more important than the model of conflict resolution is that couples understand that a willingness to express things that might cause anger or discomfort is an important part of relationship building. As long as couples are able to differentiate between the content (which may be upsetting) and the process (becoming vulnerable and sharing something important), their intimate bond is likely to grow stronger rather than weaker. After all, taking a risk and talking about things that one’s partner may not want to hear about requires trust in both the partner and the relationship, and it is therefore a deeply intimate act.