- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
5 Tips for Navigating Conflict
Nobody likes fighting with their partner, and especially if the fighting gets mean. Here are 5 ways to have kinder, more effective conflicts.
If you're in a serious long-term relationship, you've had a fight with your partner. It's just inevitable.
The closer we get to people, the more conflict there can be, and that's because we're invested in navigating a life with someone who has different feelings, needs, or opinions than us (at least at times).
Instead of fearing and avoiding conflict, let's look at how you can have better disagreements with your loved one.
1. Let Go of Needing to be Right
You don't need to convince your partner that you're right. You may strongly think that your choice or opinion is correct, and that's perfectly fine (and normal), but you don't need to fight your partner until they agree that it's correct.
Most people go into conflict with this goal in mind, and it is one of the least effective ways of getting through an argument. That's because nobody likes being told that they're wrong and that they need to change their perspective to your perspective. When we do this to our partners, they are going to get defensive and double down on their opposing perspective, which can lead to escalated tension and gridlock.
Instead of trying to convince your partner that you're right, accept a new truth: that both of you are right, at least in that both of your perspectives and feelings are completely valid. You can see the same situation or issue entirely differently, and both be right. No one has dibs on "The Truth" of things. Your goal, then, isn't to battle until one person is the victor, but rather, to have a discussion about your differing perspectives and explore ways to understand and reconcile them.
2. Validate, Validate, Validate
At every opportunity, validate what your partner has said. Tell them that you understand their perspective and that their feelings make sense.
If you ever do couples therapy with me, you'll get a whole lot of practice at this. I'll stop couples repeatedly and make them validate what the other person said. At first it feels weird and probably unnecessary, but I can't tell you how critical it is for you to take the time to acknowledge your partner's feelings.
Now, validation is not the same as agreement. This inaccurate belief about validation stops a lot of people from doing it. You don't have to give up your own perspective in order to validate your partner's. You can think to yourself, "Yeah, I see what they're saying and why they feel hurt, but I also see my own side and think that I have a fair point as well." Then you can say out loud, "Hey, I totally hear what you're saying and it makes sense to me, I understand why you feel hurt in this situation." Notice that you didn't say, "You're right about this and I'm wrong," instead you focused on validating their experience which will make them feel heard, safe, and willing to talk about the issue less defensively.
3. Change Your Mindset
This is not a battle. As you now know from the first two strategies, there is no need to be right and no downside to validating your partner's side. You need to give up the idea that an argument is a battle where one person will win and the other will lose. This type of zero-sum thinking isn't helpful in any kind of negotiation, and especially not with your partner.
Every disagreement is an opportunity for greater understanding and connection. You have a chance to better know your partner's inner world and, just as valuable, you have the chance to offer each other love and safety as you navigate a difficult conversation. When done right, couples can actually feel more understood and secure in their relationship instead of less.
Throughout the conversation, make efforts to reconnect. Even when we're doing our best to stay calm and loving, sometimes arguments get pretty tense. Work to de-escalate the tension by reconnecting. This can be through physical touch (offering a hug or holding their hand), humor, a concession or apology, or a reminder that you love them even when you're fighting.
Perhaps the most common problem with how couples fight is the tendency to be defensive. We're all guilty of it. But reconnecting during conflict makes it easier for us to life up the defenses, hear what our partner is saying, and work with them toward a solution.
5. Know When to take a Break
Despite our best intentions, sometimes arguments escalate. If you're unable to do any of the strategies above because you're so angry, hurt, or overwhelmed, then it's time to pause the conversation. You're flooded, and you need time to get back to your emotional baseline.
Breaks have some key features which I talk about here, but the important thing is that you explain you need a break (don't just walk away or stonewall) and agree to return to the conversation later. Let your partner know that you can tell you're too upset to do a good job in the discussion.
A couples therapist through and through, I've literally said this to my husband: "I'm feeling very defensive and angry, and I can tell I'm not giving your perspective a fair shot. Let's pause so that I can get to a better headspace and actually consider what you're saying." Works like a charm.
But Wait, There's More!
These five strategies are a great start to having a better disagreement, but they are just a start. Depending on the missteps you and your partner make during fights and the negative pattern you create, there are probably lots of other ways that you can communicate better and stop conflicts from escalating. So if you do these five things and your arguments aren't any better, don't despair! It might be time to try some other ways for communicating, or maybe even couples therapy.