‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’

I love this term coined by Susan Jeffers in her 1987 classic self-help book as it so nicely sums up the concept that just because something causes us fear doesn’t mean we have to let it hold us back. It is our natural instinct to run away from things we find threatening  (such as conflict!), but sometimes it is seriously unhelpful and, in fact, it can keep us STUCK in that place of anxiety and fear indefinitely. Check out my blog post on stress if you want a better understanding of why this is.

Relationship conflict has somehow been tarred with this brush of fear. Many of us have developed the notion that arguments and disagreement in a relationship are a sign of dysfunction and, consequently, it is viewed as a threat rather than an asset. I think this is partly because we equate conflict with incompatibility but also perhaps because conflict often turns into a power struggle where we feel that the outcome has to be one person winning. Whilst poorly managed conflict can cause a lot of damage to a relationship, well managed conflict can be a useful way of clearing the air, addressing problems and growing as a couple.

Stop being human and you might be able to avoid conflict!

In essence, conflict arises because we are each unique human beings. We have different personalities, different experiences and different ways of interpreting the world. Of course, we also have long lives so our opinions and needs inevitably change over time. It is unrealistic to think that partners will always think, feel or behave the same over the course of a relationship that could span decades. If we never disagreed it would take FOREVER to generate new ideas or ways of thinking that might actually make our relationships, or in fact the world, a better and more interesting place to live in.

Are any of these scenarios familiar triggers in your relationship?:

  • Something your partner said or did has pressed one of your buttons or triggers.
  • You have something important to say but feel like your partner is not listening or is avoiding the topic.
  • You have different ways of thinking about a certain topic – you disagree.
  • You have different expectations about money or how to run the household, who contributes what, how to deal with extended family, cultural differences or parenting styles.
  • One or both partners have been breeding resentment about something and finally explode.
  • Different problem solving styles – one person might be an action-oriented fixer whilst the other partner may be a thought-driven analyser.
  • Too many other opinions are being consulted in the relationship (hello friends, family, neighbours…!)
  • You hold different values or beliefs about things such as religion, parenting, schooling, what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, career or wealth.
  • Whenever you argue, old baggage from the past gets thrown in to the mix as well.
  • One or both partners has difficulty asserting their needs.
  • Sometimes you are grumpy or have just had a bad day.

Given that conflict appears to be inevitable, here are some ideas on how to manage conflict well (strap yourselves in, I have a lot of ideas about this!):

  • Communicate regularly about your expectations of each other and the relationship and be prepared that they may change over time.
  • Prevent possible problem issues by talking about them or setting up a management plan before they happen. Work out which topics you most often fight about and flag them for this extra attention. Common examples are parenting, relationships with extended family, finances, career, friendships or sex and intimacy.
  • Agree to disagree and let go sometimes – conflict doesn’t need to be a deal breaker. When you have solid foundations in your relationship, problems will come……..and then they will go. Relationships can go for decades so of course there will be many opportunities for disagreement and you can’t fight all of those battles!

“When you have solid foundations in your relationship problems will come……..and then they will go”.

  • Don’t assume the worst. In a loving relationship it is unlikely your partner is intending to cause you pain and hurt. They are likely to have the same aspirations for harmony as you.
  • Make sure there is plenty of goodwill in your relationship. Negative things will seem far less problematic if you already have a store of love and good feeling towards your partner. Do nice things for your other half and give them positive feedback when they have done something you appreciate. Be mindful to praise your partner a LOT MORE than you criticise them.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a time out. Either partner can call this with the agreement being that the other partner does not pursue and with a commitment to return to the conversation later if it is still important.
  • Recognise the pursuit/avoid cycle – this is where the more one person runs away from problem, the more vigorously the other partner feels they have to ‘chase’ to get their point across.

Conflict should not something to be frightened of unless you or your partner have a habit of losing control and becoming verbally, emotionally or physically aggressive. Seek professional help if this is the case.

  • Take responsibility for knowing and managing your triggers. All of us have certain things that press our buttons and cause us to over-react. It might be feeling rejected or abandoned, comments about your body, perceived criticism of your parenting, finances or not being a good provider. If you know you are particularly sensitive on a topic, give your poor partner a heads-up and be prepared to take time outs for yourself if you get triggered. Your partner can help you but they are not responsible for your baggage!

“Own your own baggage – your partner can help but the ultimate responsibility lies with you!”

  • Respect each other’s right to have an opinion even if you don’t agree. Watch out for coercive, bombastic, manipulative or bullying behaviour. Nobody’s mind has ever been genuinely or lastingly changed using those tactics.
  • Learn to self-soothe – once your heart rate becomes elevated the capacity for rational thought is significantly impaired. Some people roll with conflict without batting an eyelid and others become physically and emotionally agitated very quickly. If you notice agitation rising take some deep belly breaths, use coping statements such as ‘this is just a disagreement’ or ‘I can cope with this’, or take a time-out.
  • Recognise ‘flooding’ – feeling overwhelmed or distressed to such an extent that your ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. This again impacts your capacity for rational thought and can lead to desperate attempts to end the conflict at any cost.
  • Have a plan for repair – acknowledge that hurtful things are said in the heat of the moment and can cause a breach in the relationship. Make time to reconnect once things blow over and be prepared to apologise for your behaviour if it became ugly.

“Have a plan for repair – sometimes dumb and hurtful things are said in the moment and bridges need to be rebuilt. Remember that thing I said about being human – it applies here too!”

  • Make sure you are asserting your needs effectively – sometimes we feel uncomfortable expressing what we need and want which can lead to trying to get it through the back door (read, by being passive aggressive or manipulative – you know who you are!). Recognise your feelings and desires and don’t be afraid to express them. Your partner may not agree or a compromise may need to be negotiated, but own what you feel. If you have trouble asserting yourself (many people do), check out the gazillions of self-help books written on this topic for some pointers.
  • Think about what you can learn from the conflict. Is it an indicator that a part of the relationship needs attention, for example spending more time together, bringing back the romance, being too dependent or needing to explore other interests etc.
  • Ask questions to clarify where your partner is coming from and what they are looking to do differently. There may be room for compromise.
  • Try not to get too personal – stay with the topic and try and resist the temptation to be critical, judgmental, dismissive or contemptuous.
  • Go for the ‘win-win’ formula – remember arguments are not about winning they are about understanding a problem so that steps can be taken to make things better. Often there is a solution or compromise that allows everyone to get a bit of what they want.

Go for the ‘win-win’ formula – this book by Cornelus and Faire is a good ‘how to”

  • Be prepared to give to get. Good conflict management requires all parties to be open to compromise and willing to make changes themselves if necessary. Don’t go into an argument assuming that it is only your partner that has to change.
  • Don’t get fooled by anger – try to get at what is underneath. Anger is usually a surface emotion that points to something else such as hurt, rejection or frustration.
  • If conflict becomes abusive or physical walk away immediately and commit to coming back to the topic when things are calmer. If this is a frequent occurrence seek professional help to find alternative ways of resolving your disagreements.

Remember, conflict is not unhealthy if it is managed well. It can be a means of changing things that are not working, learning more about each other and becoming closer to your partner than you might otherwise be. If you cultivate a ‘no-fear’, positive attitude to conflict it can be energizing and productive.

I so appreciate you taking the time to read my posts and I sincerely hope that you find them helpful. Please understand, however, that the information you find here is not a substitute for therapy and I cannot respond to individual requests for help in the comments. If you have serious concerns about your mental or emotional health please seek personal, professional help.