The research is clear. It’s not conflict itself that sinks a couple’s relationship. It’s how they handle conflict. Conflict is inevitable— life is frustrating and opportunities for misunderstandings and hurt feelings abound. Plus, your intimate relationship WILL activate your old wounds (and your partner’s old wounds) which means that you are often fighting, not your partner, but a ghost.
What helps is practicing relational self-awareness regarding your “conflict story.” What did you see in your family growing up? * Did people escalate— yelling and blaming and slamming doors? That’s terrifying for a little person, and it would be wholly understandable if you avoid conflict like the plague! * Did people sweep stuff right under the rug— walking around in icy silence or trading sarcastic quips? That’s confusing for a little person, and it would be wholly understandable if you have no clue what healthy conflict looks like.
Don’t get it twisted. Even if you had the privilege of watching grown ups deal with frustration with grace and care, it’s still hard! When we get activated, the mature part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes “offline” and the fight/flight/freeze part of our brain (the amygdala) takes over. So “fighting fair” is really about doing what it takes to move ourselves from a “me versus you” space back into a space where listening, understanding, and validating are possible. A space of empathy. ——-
If that’s not possible, our best and bravest move is to take a time out— “I love us too much to keep talking right now. I’m scared of saying something I’m going to later regret. I need to step away for the sake of us.” If you call the time out, you’re in charge of rescheduling the convo, so that it doesn’t become a tool of avoidance. Use the time apart to fight to see the big picture. My friend and colleague Eli Finkel would tell you to use his Relationship Hack— write about the conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who has both of your best interests at heart. It works! Conflict, when handled with empathy, can be a gateway for greater intimacy. #lovingbravely