Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How to Fight: Another Essential Relationship Skill

Any relationship will experience some degree of conflict. People, no matter how much we appear to be similar, always have significant differences. That includes your significant other. How we navigate those differences can determine the quality of our relationships.

Some people learn good relationships skills at a young age. Their parents have an awesome, healthy relationship and model that awesomeness. If this is you, congrats! Thank your parents.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to expose kids to crappy relationships on a regular basis. Parents bring their emotional baggage and dysfunctional relationship skills into marriages. They then model this dysfunction to their kids while mistakenly believing "staying together for the kids" is a good thing. If we were one of those kids, we probably internalized a lot of bad relationship skills.

Conflict resolution was probably at the top of that list.

What does healthy conflict resolution look like? It's pretty much the same idea as asking for what you need in a relationship, which I covered yesterday. 
  1. Each of us shares our point of view in a calm, emotionless manner. 
  2. We confirm that they really heard and understood our partner's point of view. 
  3. We then look for possible solutions that are mutually beneficial.
  4. Implement the solution.
That's it. That's all it takes to overcome any conflict. It's much easier said than done, however. Why? We have a lot of shit that prevents this process from progressing smoothly. Here are the most common mistakes we make:
  •  We deny there's a problem. We like to say relationships are hard, then simply live with a ton of unresolved issues. It's code for "I don't want to put forth the effort to actually make this relationship great." If both of us follow this pattern, the relationship soon devolves into nothing more than a convenient but uncomfortable living arrangement. If one of us believes everything is okay but our partner believes there are problems, our partner will only tolerate being with us for so long before they search out greener pastures. If there's a problem, acknowledge it... even if our partner is the only one that believes it's a problem.
  • We have a need to be right. Dr. Phil is a tool. However, he does have the occasional bits of wise advice, including his phrase "Would you rather be right or be happy?" It ranks right up there with "We're not raising kids. We're raising adults." Anyway, the point is spot-on. If we always insist on being right, this process simply won't work. Negotiation, which is rooted in empathy and reciprocity, cannot happen if one partner is unwilling to accept blame, fails to take responsibility, and assigns fault to their partner.  Relationships are based on cooperation, not competition. Go into every conflict with the mindset that you may be 100% wrong.
  • We protect our ego. If we feel like we're under attack, we put up our defenses. We counter-attack. We yell. We swear. We call our partner names. We resort to physical violence. All of this immediately ends any hope of a logical, mutually-beneficial solution and always causes the conflict to blow up. Always stay calm, fight "nice" be resisting the urge to use attacking language, drag emotions into the conflict, and assign blame.
  • We lose sight of the goal. If we try to 'win' a conflict, we drag out the big guns. Those big guns could include past unresolved issues, past indiscretions by one or both partners, or the things we know would really hurt our partner. Or we may move to another area of conflict. We need to focus on the problem before us. Solve that before moving on. Clearly define the conflict, and only work on that one conflict.
If a conflict ever escalates to a point where a mutually-beneficial solution isn't likely, stop fighting. Back away. Take some time to calm down. Come back to the problem when both are more level-headed. If it takes multiple sessions, so be it.
If a conflict cannot seem to be resolved, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Good relationship skills are not intuitive if you're never seen them in action. Suck up your pride and get help. A good therapist can teach you the skills needed to be successful in a relationship.

If the conflict or conflicts persist, consider the possibility that your relationship may have run its course (see my comment about parents modeling bad relationships for their kids.) Relationships will naturally ebb and flow; they will experience highs and lows. At some point, one or both of the partners may have simply grown in a different direction and there's not a lot of common ground. That fact is usually evident in a steady increase in conflicts over time. Consider the possibility that the relationship may need to end for the sake of all parties involved. 

Conflict resolution is an essential relationship skill. Some of us learn it from a young age. Some don't. If you're in the "I have no fucking clue" category, don't fret. Conflict resolution is pretty easy to learn. It takes some time to avoid the sometimes automatic responses that make conflict resolution difficult (or impossible), but stick with it. As I've said before, life is too short to waste stuck in shitty relationships. Take control of your life and fix it! Or leave it. Either way, make a choice to do something.



  1. Hi Jason,

    I'd like to hear your thoughts on therapy in general. Just reading your suggestion that counselling is appropriate in some situations. I'm wondering about your thoughts on diagnostics and pathologizing legitimate reactions to trauma. I feel like part of me is trying to find out what's wrong with me and that's how I approach therapy and diagnotstics seem all too ready to give me bad names to call what I'm doing.

    Don't know if that's more appropriate here or at BRU, but it's a conflict that's been on my mind lately.

  2. This cuts to a very strong debate in psychology. The clinical world has a utilitarian purpose for diagnosis and treating behavior like pathology... it gives them a framework to use standardized fixes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I don't think it's the only way to address reactions to trauma. Personally, I'm a big fan of positive cognitive psychology and behaviorism because it tends to be forward-thinking and empowers us to realize we have can control many things that are seemingly out of our control. Identify the problem, figure out a plan to fix it.

    Having said that, I had very good personal results from a psychodynamic-based therapist (that shocked me as I'm a major critic of Freud's approach.)

    I'll write a post about therapy in the near future to go into a little more depth.