by Mary L. Obata, M.A.
Marriage & Family Therapist
Conflict is a necessary, inevitable part of a relationship. It is actually healthy to engage in conflict and be able to resolve issues. What is unhealthy is to repetitively engage in escalated, destructive conflict. Following are guidelines to keep destructive fighting to a minimum and to be able to resolve conflict peacefully and constructively.
Set up fair fighting rules before a fight begins. It is important to treat each other with respect. Agree to no yelling, name-calling, sarcasm, blaming, labeling, no using the words “always” or “never,” etc. Stay focused on one issue at a time, don’t bring up “But you do __________.” If your partner brings up another issue say, “That may be true, but we are talking about this issue right now.” If a rule is broken, instead of doing the same thing back (e.g., yelling or name-calling) say “That really hurts when you ________.” or “It is not okay for you to _________.”
Use time-outs to stop escalating fights. Agree to use the word “Time-out!” as a signal when discussions begin to get out of control. Pay attention to your internal responses, and when you start feeling flooded with intense feelings, feel your heart start racing and the adrenaline pumping, STOP and say “I need a time-out, I will be back in 20 minutes” (or however long you think you’ll need). Telling your partner a certain amount of time that you will be gone is important to ensure that your partner does not feel abandoned. Either partner may call a time-out when they feel themselves or their partner begin to escalate out of control.
It is important to honor one another’s boundaries. Remember not to continue talking or try to stop your partner from leaving when he/she asks for a time-out. Realize that you can get much further if you are both calmed down rather than continuing in an escalated, repetitive back-and-forth exchange going nowhere. Also, you don’t want to say something that you will regret later. It usually takes at least 20 minutes for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to return to normal. If the person who took the time-out needs more than 20 minutes, come back to your partner and tell him/her that you need more time and how much more.
Anger is energy that needs to be released. While it is not healthy to “vent” your rage at your partner, it is healthy to find constructive ways to release the energy. Immediately take some deep breaths (breathe all the way down into your stomach allowing it expand like a balloon) to move the energy out. Physical exercise is best. Take a walk around the block, go biking or jogging. Other alternatives if you stay indoors are to: write your feelings down on a piece of paper, take a crayon and paper and draw your anger, twist a towel between your hands, scream into a pillow. If expressing the anger increases it or keeps you embroiled in it, use a relaxation technique to calm yourself: tense and relax your muscles throughout your body; visualize yourself in a peaceful, relaxing place, either real or imaginary; focus on your breath just by noticing your breathing without trying to change it. In the future, practice expressing anger in appropriate ways before it gets to the point of rage, “I am feeling very angry because __________.”
Take time to identify feelings underlying your anger that are more difficult to experience—sadness, powerlessness, rejection or fear. Sometimes, it is much easier to feel and express the anger rather than the hurt feelings underneath. Expressing your vulnerabilities in a relationship can be scary but so much more constructive and healing.
Think about your part in the argument. Often an argument ensues because you got defensive and weren’t able to acknowledge the truth in your partner’s statement. Take a moment after your partner has said something to acknowledge his/her side instead of just giving your point of view right away. Both points of view usually have merit and you can get caught up in endlessly battling your points when they both are true. Simply saying “You’re right” or “I’m sorry” can go a long way in opening up the discussion and allowing resolution.
Pay attention to the negative messages you might be telling yourself about your partner. Those negative thoughts can keep you embroiled in anger. You can shift your feelings just by thinking that your partner has had a bad day or that you know he/she was hurt and didn’t really mean what he/she said. Look underneath the surface of your partner’s actions to find compassion for him/her.
Look at your reactions to your partner’s words. You may be reacting to old messages from childhood that are being triggered in your current relationship. Are there underlying beliefs you’ve developed about yourself that you hear in your partner’s words and might be trying to fight against like “I’m not lovable,” “I can never do enough,” or “I’m not good enough”? So that you can understand each other better, share those beliefs and talk about what gets triggered for you.
Practice using “I” messages when discussing an issue. State the problem as clearly and concretely as possible focusing on a particular behavior using the following format: I feel _______________ (state your feelings) when you _______________ (state the specific behavior), because ___________ (state what it means to you), so I would like you to _____________ (state the specific behavior you would like in the future). For example, “I feel hurt and abandoned when you come home late because to me that means you don’t care about me, so I would like you to call if you’re going to be more than ten minutes late.” or “I feel hurt when you use that tone of voice with me because to me that means you don’t respect me, so I would like you to apologize and use a nicer, less condescending tone in the future.” Your partner should reflect back what he/she heard: I hear you saying that _____________. Is that right? Your partner can then say how he/she feels and you both can work toward a solution after understanding each other’s perspective. Remember to try to resolve only one issue at a time.
For more information about Mary Obata, Marriage and Family Therapist, go to:
Mary L. Obata, M.A., MFT