Conflict is healthy. Fighting? Maybe not so much.

We all have spats every now and then, and that’s healthy. If two people agreed 100% of the time, they wouldn’t make a progressive couple, because each would bring the exact same perspective into the partnership as the other. Likewise, if one partner just goes along with everything the other says, the needs of the first will be oppressed and the second will never become better. Conflict is healthy, because it helps us think critically, and it helps us experience different perspectives. But you have to approach conflict constructively.

How to avoid conflict when you should

Only two days ago, I was beyond upset with the public transportation system (cue eyes rolling). Melaya was difficult all day, and then it took me an hour and forty-five minutes to make a journey that should have been done in forty-five minutes. I couldn’t get a seat, because one dumb kid after another kept taking the only seat I could use while still holding on to my stroller (there were other seats for them available). To add injury to insult, the bus driver drove like a maniac and slammed me into the hand railing multiple times. When I got home, and Deborah left her tea and plate out on the table, who do you think was the subject of my wrath? This all sounds a bit trivial, but these are the kinds of things people deal with on a daily basis. The sad truth is that we all do it. We let our anger stew in our minds and end up lashing out at the easiest target: our spouses.

If something your partner does or says upsets you, immediately take a look in the mirror, and ask yourself if you’re in the right headspace to be making that kind of judgement. Is what he or she did really deserving of how angry you feel? Have you breathed in and out, while putting the ‘offense’ into perspective? Is there something you can do to mitigate the conflict right now? Write these down and make a checklist for anytime you’re about to confront your spouse.

Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Similarly, show sympathy to your partner if he or she has had a rough day. Deborah and I have always held that your happiness is never your partner’s responsibility. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t tell your spouse that you’ve had a bad day. And, it doesn’t mean that your partner can’t talk you through it and try to make you feel better.

When possible, it’s best to avoid arguments, and certainly to avoid provoking them, but if and when they arise you should know how to handle them

How to approach conflicts constructively

After knowing you’re in the right headspace, focus on effective communication. If I think a conflict is necessary, I like to have almost a mock conversation in my head, so I know the exact points and tone to get across. Try to take the other person’s point of view in this exercise. Ask yourself the question, ‘is this conversation going to move us forward toward a resolution, or is it just going to make the other person angry?’ When you’ve decided on a resolution, let it be the precedent for the future. Deborah and I are spouses, but also business partners. Early on in that business relationship, we butted heads a lot over the copy, writing, and design of our websites. Now that we have worked through many of those issues, we’ve decided that while we can both contribute to any project, certain jobs are only done by one or the other. Likewise, when there’s a disagreement, we’ll defer to the opinion of one or the other, depending on whose role it falls under. 5% of your focus is enough to identify the problem, and that’s the only focus it should get. The other 95% of your effort goes directly into finding a solution.

And when you do apologize to one another, it should be heartfelt and you should say what you’re apologizing for. Your reason means that you have taken notes of what the conflict was about

What not to do when approaching a conflict

What an argument or conflict really shouldn’t do is provoke the other person. What an argument shouldn’t do is make the issue worse. If you find yourself thinking maliciously, it’s time to take a break and cool down. Don’t globalize. What I mean by that is, don’t say, “you always bring my mother into this,” or “you always leave the cupboards open.” First of all, even if it feels like it in the moment, it’s probably not true. And, when you globalize, you fail to acknowledge that your spouse does do pretty well most of them time (otherwise, why would you be married?), but maybe there’s this one small thing you wish would change. Secondly, when you globalize, it leaves no room for improvement. It would be better to phrase your question like, “I can see your point, but when you brought my mother into our argument today, I felt X.” Or “thank you for doing the dishes, but my OCD goes crazy when the cupboards are left open. Can you be sure to close them next time?” Never call names. I don’t care what it is, even if he is being an asshole. Not only does it infuriate the other person, but it dumbs down the entire conversation, and it sets a bad precedent for future disagreements. I understand things slip out, but that’s when it’s time to take a step back and apologize. And be heartfelt.

What to do when you feel the argument heading in the wrong direction

Sometimes, even in the right headspace, you’re pushed passed your breaking point. All of us have been there. If you feel that the conversation isn’t going to be constructive, it’s perfectly ok to say so. It’s fine if you tell your spouse, “I don’t think this is going to be constructive right now.” Or “I need a break from this, because I’m getting too riled up.” Take the time you need to cool down, because that’s monumentally better than saying something you can’t take back, or something that will make the problem even more difficult to solve.

Body Language

Did anyone ever tell you that you can’t be physically close when you argue? I hope not, because it’s not true. Your body language says a lot. Stay close, point your hips, even put your arm around him or her. Even if you have something to say, you can still be soft: direct and delicate. Your partner will probably give you a better response. This kind of action says, I still love you even when there’s a disagreement, and I’m willing to work through it amicably.

Just to finish it off, I want to offer one pro tip: a lot of people say, “I’ll never go to bed angry with my spouse.” Meaning, they always want to resolve conflict before the day is finished. I can understand the allure of this, but I don’t think it’s realistic for everybody. One thing I will say, though, is if you’re still in an argument with your significant other at bedtime, always say goodnight (and not in a sarcastic way). This let’s them know that despite the disagreement, you’re still very in love.

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