Stop doing these three things in one single step
This one is about conflict resolution. This is not to mean that all relationships are conflictive — it just acknowledges the fact that conflict is a natural part of human interaction. This is something basic that a lot of people don’t realize — and by not realizing it, they react to conflict with disappointment, they lose fair in the relationship, they begin to think critically of their partner. All of this is unwarranted and unnecessary.
Why Conflict Is a Natural Part Of Relationships
We come to relationships with different perspectives. Think about it — you and your partner have disparate backgrounds, different experiences, different ways to look at the world. Maybe you found each other because of a good amount of synchrony and matching outlooks; which will largely decrease conflict on the big ideological questions. Maybe you are a manifestation of “opposites attract” — in which case disagreements are more likely. Still, even in the best of cases disagreement WILL happen.
Did you grow up with siblings? Same background, same household, same values, same rules. And still, arguments happen. Arguments are a natural part of human interaction. They’re a way to define (or redefine) boundaries. They help us understand one another. Sometimes they’re the product of misunderstandings. Sometimes they’re a result of the very human impulse to show supremacy and territoriality. Sometimes we’re just activated; a painful memory got triggered and we’re not reacting in the ‘now,’ we’re far away fighting a battle from decades ago. I intend to write a more detailed account of the different dynamics that lead to arguments, and define different strategies for each of these. But today I’m leaving you with these two pieces of practical advice:
- Conflict happens. It doesn’t have to mean you’re broken, it doesn’t have to mean mean your relationship is defective, it doesn’t have to mean your partner doesn’t love you. It is a natural thing.
- There is a simple strategy to make conflict a lot easier on both sides.
Stop Doing These Three Things in One Single Step
When we discover there is a conflict, our problem-solving impulse jumps into action. And naturally we seek to resolve the conflict. This is BAD idea.
Most people realize there is a conflict, state the conflict to their partner, and then immediately jump into a conflict resolution mode. This is conflating three things:
- Spot the problem
- Articulate it to your partner
- Work on resolving the conflict.
Spotting the Problem
First of all, the problem you see may not be the conflict that exists. You might have a poor assessment of the situation. Also, humans tend to see something, assign symbology to it, then decide what the consequences must be.
Once again you’re doing three things at once:
- A. Spot the problem
- B. Assign symbology
- C. Conclude what the consequences must be
Your partner is late for a date. You assign the symbology that they just don’t care about you, or the date. You conclude that the course of action is to manifest bitterness and anger. But each of these could be flawed. Is your partner late? Did you say seven or sevenish? Did you agree on dinner reservations at eight or eight-thirty? (Granted, this is simplistic example.)
You assign symbology. What does this mean? Why not ASK. Genuinely, not with sarcasm and accusation. “Did you not want to see this movie?” “Is something on your mind?” “Are you experiencing anxiety?” “Did something come up?” Then, and only then, speculate about consequences. And don’t jump to these lightly — the consequences you might think of may be deeply colored by unproductive emotion. Stop, breathe, think of the best course of action.
Articulate It To Your Partner
Here we may talk about good communication processes, about using “I” statements instead of “you”-centered accusations and judgment, etc.
But for the sake of this quick article, my single point is:
Do not conflate this with the previous step.
You’ve spotted a problem. Is this the best time to bring it up? Really?
- While your partner is driving the car, rushed because of a time concern, looking at Google maps and negotiating a rainy drive?
- While trying to discipline your child?
- At two in the morning, as you both fade to sleep after a stressful day?
- In the middle of love-making?
The human mind is not great at multi-tasking. Doing several things at once lowers performance in each of them. Low energy, lack of sleep, lack of focus because there’s a competing priority… all of these can significantly decrease someone’s ability to problem-solve.
There’s something else. Don’t ambush your partner.
You’ve spotted a problem, and it’s on your mind. Your partner’s mind is elsewhere. They’re unprepared for your burst of emotion, they’re clueless they’re about to be thrown into ‘battle.’ Think about the rudeness of throwing someone into a pool. This produces a similar emotional result.
Instead, wait until a time when your partner is calm, unfettered by other worries, and can give you their attention.
Work on Resolving The Conflict
This is the third step. And again, it should not be conflated with the previous step.
What we usually tend to do is articulate the problem and immediately get into the argument. Your partner has had no time to process the data, to assess their emotions, to collect their thoughts. They’ll do a poor job of it.
Instead, state the problem, ask for an appointment to resolve it.
“Can we talk about it after dinner”
“Are you ok with dealing with this in about an hour?”
“Let’s circle back to this over the weekend. It’s important to me, so let’s not leave too much time before we address it.”
When the appointed time comes, you’ll both be comfortable tackling the problem. You’ll both feel you’ve had agency and freedom in the process. Consequently, your partner and you will come to the discussion without the added emotional undercurrents of having been rushed, feeling attacked, blindsided.
That simple. Don’t do all the three things together. Do one at a time.
And marvel at the much-improved results.