One of my therapeutic tips for dealing with conflict in relationships
Learning how to deal with conflict in a relationship is one of the most common enquiry types that I have. Anecdotally I find that the ratio of individuals who tend towards avoidance of conflict as opposed to being drawn to it as a means of problem resolution at about 2:1.
Some clients tell me they don't like confrontation, that the idea of someone being angry with them is upsetting and frightening (perhaps disproportionately to the level of conflict triggering something from childhood). That knowing that they have fallen out with a friend, relative or partner leaves them feeling unsafe and unloved.
The other side of this divide tell me that they don't necessarily seek conflict, however, it is one of the ways that they learned to resolve an issue. That they might not look for a fight, but that they often feel better afterwards because grievances and opinions have been aired. For them, this leaves them feeling empowered and more peaceful.
So how can we be expected to have a relationship with someone who opposes our own conflict style? How can we feel comfortable knowing that when we do fight with our romantic partner - as we of course will at some point - it would be highly irregular to have a relationship where there are two distinct people and no differences in opinion - how can we fight, and not get hurt?
I've been working on this recently with some of my clients, and its a reassuringly common theme in several of the distinct stages of a romantic relationship (more on this next week...), and it has prompted me to offer one of my resources for dealing with conflict to you here.
I do hope that you find this useful. If you try it with a partner or friend, do let me know how you get on in the comments.
Harley Counselling's free relationship therapeutic tool: Taking a break from hostility
When to do it:
- when feeling as though the emotions we have during a conversation are overwhelming
- when we experience repetition in a fight, saying the same things over and over
- when the dialogue seems no longer to be making progress
- when anger is becoming more apparent and uncomfortable
How to do it:
- pre-arrange a signal or word which you will use to indicate a time-out (this can be an in-joke that you share, or perhaps a hand signal)
- stop communicating verbally
- immediately go to a pre-arranged room or place which is separate from the other person
- don't follow the other person when they go!
What to do:
- take 30 minutes to be by yourself
- make a list of the issues that came up in the fight and your viewpoints
- if you can remember the views of the other person list those too
- take care of yourself - this could be taking a walk, writing in a journal, listening to music, gardening, practising mindfulness, cooking - something that I would describe as a "flow" activity, where you can carry out the action without engaging your brain consciously
When to come back together:
- reconvene by means of the person who asked for the break approaching the other partner (either in person or by phone) and asking if they are ready to come back together - if not add another 30 minutes.
- if the initial 1 hour (30mins + 30mins) is not enough then stretch out the break to half a day, perhaps a whole one - if more extreme this can stretch to meeting again the following day
When you come back together it can feel natural to go back to the topic that was the cause of the break. It's important not to do this. Let the issue go for another 24 hours after reconvening. If the issue still proves to be too heated for a conversation at the second attempt, then it would be better to bring the issue to the structure of a couples counselling session. When you do, make sure that you both bring the notebook or journal that you made notes in previously.
Laura is an online talking therapist and writer specialising in working with millennials and the LGBTQI+ community.