How to resolve conflict and save your relationship
You’re sitting in a coffee shop. There are two couples in the shop sitting near you.
The couple to your left is arguing about whether they want to go to dinner with friends. He says, “It’s never fun — you said so yourself last time.” She responds, “Of course you would say that, because they’re my friends, and you’ve never given any of my friends a chance.” He rolls his eyes, and in a very sarcastic tone says, “Here we go. War and Peace, our personal edition, volume whatever.” They turn away from each other and sit in silence.
The couple to your right is discussing whether they want to go to dinner with friends. He says, “I guess I’m a little worried that it will go on for hours and that it might not be that fun. What do you think?” She responds, “Yeah, I know that happens sometimes. You know Jim. The only one who likes to talk more than him is…oh wait! That’s me!” He smiles, and says, “Yes, but I like hearing you talk. Jim, not so much. I get a little bored with him — not you.” She says, “I get that. I really want to go, but maybe we can plan a time when we have to leave as a compromise?” She continues, touching his hand and smiling, “Besides, it will be nice to get home early enough to enjoy the rest of our evening together.” He smiles and nods, and they continue to read and drink their coffee.
Both couples were presented with a conflict — the same conflict, in fact. One reacted by relying on bad habits and used the conflict to widen a rift between them. The other used the conflict as an opportunity to grow and evolve their relationship. Which couple do you think has the more successful, fulfilling relationship?
How conflict is destructive
A conflict with your partner can make you feel attacked or threatened, vulnerable and weak, and this can make you recoil and retreat. When things your partner does upsets you and you feel that you’re under siege, you’re less likely to respond constructively and more likely to resort to old standbys like “the silent treatment” that do more harm than good.
If anyone asked you if you knew how to resolve conflict, you’d probably say yes, and if they asked you whether the silent treatment was a smart way to deal with conflict, you’d almost certainly say no. You know better than to choose these silly tactics, but if you’re hurt enough, you do it anyway. Why do we do that?
You must want to be constructive to make it happen, especially if you need to overcome your own hurt feelings to figure out how to fix problems in a relationship. You may have a wonderful store of knowledge, skills and tools, but if you lack the intention to use them, the point is moot.
We have a tendency of retaliating and responding to hostility with more hostility, which creates a vicious cycle that amplifies and escalates the negativity of a conflict. This is called the retaliatory spiral, and it can cause a relationship to wither, and, eventually, end.
What causes this? A conflict becomes harmful when you’re focused on defending yourself from attack rather than on solving the problem that would help the relationship overcome the obstacle. By focusing on your pain and suffering, you are ensuring you’ll experience more of the same, because you’re failing to put your energy toward the one thing that will prevent the pain and suffering: finding solutions to these issues in your relationship.
Years ago, Tony Robbins would take a two-lane isolated highway lined only by power line posts at 10–20 yard intervals. One of these, along a particular snake-like section of the road, seemed to be perpetually decorated by flowers, candles and photographs memorializing and honoring the lives of traffic victims who had hit the post. With so much space on either side of the post, it was amazing how many people had died or been injured hitting it. Why didn’t the victim evade it? Why didn’t they swerve to either side?
It’s because people would focus all their attention on not hitting the pole. But, our focus determines our direction. If we don’t want to hit the pole, we need to focus on what we want: steer the car towards either side of the pole. By changing our focus, we can change the result. The lesson applies to your relationship. If you focus on where you don’t want your relationship to end up, you’ll find yourself where you don’t want to be. If you focus on resolving conflict and growing together, you’ll be focused on the outcomes that you do want and you’ll achieve them. Where focus goes, energy flows.
By switching perspective and focus, you can turn a conflict from something bad into an opportunity to take your relationship to the next level. This demands intent, which you set ahead of time and practice in the moment. You learn to respond not with escalation, but with constructive steps that shore up the foundation of your relationship.
How conflict can create
Break the pattern of hostility and give the conflict positive energy. Don’t get defensive; don’t hammer your point; don’t try to win. Why would you want your partner, the person you love, to lose?
Conflicts are opportunities for you and your partners to align on values and outcomes. They are chances to understand, appreciate, and embrace differences. Put yourself in your partner’s place and make an effort to understand his or her experience; this is the way you learn how to save your relationship. These experiences and emotions can be uncomfortable, but if we always opt for comfort then we can never grow.
If you find yourself in a retaliatory spiral, a good tactic is to use humor to break the pattern. Try to argue talking like Christopher Walken or William Shatner. Sing a song that makes your partner laugh. Make the conflict ridiculous.
To illustrate this point, let’s return to the coffee shop example again. You see an older couple. The man accidentally spills his tea all over the table and some splashes and drips onto his wife’s favorite dress. He gets up for some napkins, and she smiles and jokes aloud to the other customers, “For twenty years he’s been doing this to me — never finished a cup yet!” He comes back, dabs the tea off her and jokes back to the other patrons, “She was asking for it!” They both laugh, and you do, too, along with everyone else in the shop. Some couples would have turned the situation into an argument, but by using humor to nip the retaliatory spiral in the bud this husband and wife seized the moment and turned it into an opportunity to laugh and love.
Humor is a shortcut to solving relationship problems. It can release tension and allow you and your partner to focus on what you both want, rather than on what you both don’t want.
When you’re learning how to fix your relationship, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself: What do you want? What should you focus on? Remember to appreciate, rather than detract. All our partners do things, or have habits, that annoy us, because no human being is perfect. Instead of dwelling on their negative traits or bad habits, focus instead on what they bring to the table, how they make you feel and the qualities that you love. You’ll find that you’ll soon start to miss even the things that used to drive you crazy, because they are part of that whole person, your partner, whom you adore.
Do you find yourself wondering how to save your relationship from a break up? Use conflict as an opportunity to re-align your values and goals, to inject passion and energy into your relationship. Remember the two couples at the café? The successful couple, who put energy into understanding each other’s needs, reaffirmed their support for one another — she supported his need to leave at a certain hour and he supported her need to socialize with friends. They also made a fun game of it as a compromise, promising to go home early enough to spend some quality time together.
Listen to your partner, understand what they’re saying and why they feel the way they do. Be honest about your own feeling and emotions. Be your authentic self, because conflict is an opportunity to truly connect with your partner.
Instead of viewing conflict as a threat to the relationship you share with your partner, view it as a constructive tool. Conflict is also an opportunity to learn more about your partner and love them on an even deeper level. It’s an opportunity to add passion and to take your relationship to the next level. Learn to see conflicts as transitions to something better, rather than as reasons to retreat. The next time you find yourself disagreeing with your partner and wondering how to save your relationship, choose to see the positive in the situation rather than the negative, and actively decide to work toward a more stable future — together.