Sunday, September 21, 2014

Four Steps for Crushing Relationship Conflict

As a mental health practitioner, I often help others sort out conflicts and crises. Over the years I have learned that there are specific skills that help people navigate their relationships in a more loving and productive manner.

The next time you have a disagreement, try these tools before you re-engage:


We are victims of age-old wiring. When we feel threatened, we have a primitive instinct to fight, flee, or freeze; or a combination platter of the three reactions. Take whatever time you need to restore your normal heart rate and breathing patterns. Deep breathing, stretching, time with a pet, a walk around the block, and time outside in a garden or the woods can all be helpful.

Ask yourself what your role was in the argument. Did you stoop to name-calling, blaming, or shaming? Did you yell? These common tactics used in arguments are not productive. Did you bring up hurts or incidents from the past? Fair fighting requires a focus on the present and using "I" statements ("I worry when you come home an hour after you told me you would",  not "You are always late"). Were you looking to blow off steam after a bad day? We often save our worst for those we love. Be mindful of this tendency- it erodes the warmth in a relationship. Are you currently under major stress? When chronically stressed, we have a lower threshold for upset and may argue more frequently.

Next, try to identify what the biggest issue is that you hope to change or bring awareness to.  Did the disagreement start over differences in emotional styles? Did it start over a difference of opinion in parenting or money? Is this an old, recurring fight? Identifying what the argument is really about may help you sort if out.

Calmer heads will prevail if you wait to talk again only when all parties are ready (although perpetually refusing to talk after a day or so has passed is unhealthy).  Be aware of the volume of your voice. I have noticed that when someone is consistently loud, a pattern can be set up whereby the quieter person shuts down regardless of the content. Also, listen intently and try paraphrasing what your loved one says. This technique gives you time to absorb and clarify the message before you respond.

 If you continue to feel frustrated, unheard, or hurt, you may want to seek out a counselor or therapist.
Sometimes an objective professional can spot unhelpful dynamics and share insights and tools to help you get the warmth back in your relationships.

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