How many times have you found yourself in a WWE type verbal fight? Later you look back and realize that the verbal altercation started from such a small issue. You wonder how such a giant fire started from such a small stupid spark. Often times our disagreements turn into our biggest fights not necessarily because of the issue at hand but because of the way we handle the disagreement. As a mental health counselor in Florida and Ohio, I often work with my couples on how to have healthy conflict and "fight fair." Here are 4 tips for healthy conflict that can help you the next time you find yourself stepping into your WWE ring. These are simple but not always easy tips I share with my clients I work with in couples counseling. To make it easy just remember to S.T.O.P.!
Stay on Topic
So many times, when we have conflict, we bring up the past and start discussing other issues to prove our point. We then say things such as “you ALWAYS do this” and “you NEVER do that.” Once you say “always” or “never” you’ve just shifted the discussion. More often than not, the person is now going to defend the fact that they don’t “always do that.” This isn’t the real point. The real point is that they did it this time and you feel a certain way about it. Remember the point of the discussion. It shouldn’t be to belittle, to blame, or to attack. Once this is your goal you’ve already lost the other person. Their goal will not be to listen and understand or to solve the problem. It will be to defend themselves and either prove you wrong or attack you back.
Also, if you would like to resolve this conflict then whatever you do, do NOT bring up other behaviors the person has done in the past that seem completely unrelated. I see couples do this all the time who come to me for online couples counseling or life coaching. A wife may be talking to her husband about how he never picks up his clothes from the bathroom floor despite her asking multiple times. He then starts to defend how he picked them up last night. She then starts discussing how he also never listens to her. Now he feels unappreciated and like he can do nothing right because he really did pick them up last night.
Again, stick to the subject. You are angry because you feel disrespected and unappreciated that you are left to pick up your spouse’s clothes. Throw out the always and never statements because they NEVER work! Ha. We will go more into how you can phrase these statements better to get a better result later in the article. For now, remember what you're upset about right now and stick to that.
Try to Understand
Often, we argue or have a disagreement with the intention to WIN. We stop really listening to the other person and only think about our key points. Instead of trying to understand the other person, we want to prove them wrong. I know we all have been guilty of this but it’s a terrible strategy. Nothing will get resolved long term. Maybe you’ll win the battle but not the war. The other person will be left feeling like they were bullied and not heard. Think about how frustrating it is when someone doesn’t hear you out.
So even though this is difficult, the next time you are in an agreement try to listen with the goal to understand where the other person is coming from. Ask yourself, or them, what they might be feeling.
The goal of confrontation should be to resolve a problem and ultimately move closer.
This is not always achievable but if two people are willing to work at it, it can be done. Once the goal is to “win” you shifted yourself into a competition and competitions don’t solve problems and they don’t move people closer. As a competitor you chose a different team and your spouse is now your adversary or rival not your ally. So, get out of the ring and get back on the same team. Listen to understand them and speak to explain your feelings, not to win.
Opt Out of Sarcasm and Being Passive Aggressive
I know you are so over it. It’s the 500th time your significant other has done that one thing that drives you crazy. Or maybe you feel your spouse has nagged you for the last time and you are done taking it silently. Like I said I get it, you’re over it. However, I can assure you this is not the time to use sarcasms as a metaphorical throat punch, deeming comments as a left hook, condescending statements as crouch kick or passive aggressive remarks as the infamous rope leap onto the opponent. Remember, you’re on the same team and these comments hurt!
The moment you start putting them down you've opted out of solving the problem.
Maybe you're thinking your passive aggressive jabs or sarcastic jokes are the only way to get them to see what they're doing. I want you to honestly ask yourself the following question. Have my sarcastic or passive aggressive comments EVER caused my partner to stop what they are doing and say "I'm so sorry honey. I never realized the amount of time I spend with my friends bothers you. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will be home more often from now on."? I can assure you the answer is no. Ask yourself another question. How do you feel when someone is speaking to you sarcastically or being passive aggressive? I know, I hate it and it's hurtful. So why do we do this when we know it's not effective?
The truth is sometimes it's difficult to tell someone how we are REALLY feeling. It's often easier to be passive aggressive than to say, "I feel rejected and lonely when we only have quality time with each other once a week." or "I feel like a failure when you often point out my weaknesses." And if we are really being honest being passive aggressive often is fueled by fear and insecurity.
When I ask my clients, what triggers them to use these tactics I often hear that if they're honest they fear that they'll be seen as too needy, they may be rejected, or they may be seen as weak. Often the other issue we discover is that they believe they don't deserve to ask for what they want. Maybe these are true for you. Maybe you grew up in a home where these negative habits were the norm. Whatever the reason, know that these behaviors are pushing your partner away not bringing them closer. These negative habits are forcing you both into the ring as adversaries. If you want conflict to bring you closer, put down these self-protective weapons, take the risk, and be honest.
Practice "I statements"
Earlier we discussed the husband who "always" leaves his clothes on the bathroom floor and then he feels nagged by his wife and that he can't do anything right. Well let's take a look at some positive ways that the wife and husband could work to communicate better. The wife can start by asking herself, "how do I feel when he leaves his clothes on the floor?". Maybe she feels disrespected and devalued. Often times when I ask my clients how they "feel" they tell me what they "think". For example, they might say "I feel that my husband thinks I am the maid and my job is to pick up after everyone all the time. Like I have nothing better to do than cook and clean." This is their thought, but I look for what feelings those thoughts may provoke in them. What feeling do you hear?
Once we get to those feelings, we plug them into I statements. "I feel ______ when _______." "I feel unimportant and disrespected when you leave your clothes on the floor for me to pick up. I feel frustrated and sad when I spend hours cleaning up after everyone which leaves less time for me to do things I enjoy, like painting." This helps the other person to understand why this bothers you and how you are interpreting their actions. Then your job is to listen. Allow the other person to share. They may share that their mother use to always clean up after them and never complained about it. Or that they don't even notice when 10 pairs of underwear pile up on the bathroom floor. You may not be able to fathom that thought but remember, they are not you.
Okay now feelings have been exchanged and hopefully we better understand our ally. So, what is the solution? Together you and your teammate need a solution or boundary. What if the hamper is moved to the bathroom for easier access? What if clothes left on the floor do not get washed by the wife but put in his closet instead? Whatever the solution, try to come up with it together and make a decision. Otherwise, this conflict will not be resolved and will continue to trigger anger which can ultimately lead to resentment and even worse, contempt. Once contempt is there, both parties are down, and you can start the ultimate countdown to the end of the fight.
Hopefully, these few steps can help you the next time you are unhappy about something in your relationship. If you feel like you would benefit from more guidance in this area, working with a life coach may be helpful. It’s not easy to unlearn negative habits especially in conflict with loved ones. A life coach can help you further identify negative patterns and introduce you to healthier behaviors in conflict. They can work with you and your partner or just you, on how to have healthier conflict with more beneficial outcomes. They also may help you to explore if the relationship you’re in may be one you are ultimately unhappy with and not a right fit for you. Some people are not willing to fight fair no matter what you do, and it may be time to move on or distance yourself from that person.
At the end of the day, conflict should not equal fight or show down. Very contrary to popular belief, conflict, can equal stronger bond, healthier relationship, and deeper love.
I have never seen a truly intimate relationship without healthy conflict.
It's how we can be further known and loved. You're probably never going to get it perfect, none of us do. Just keep working at it and the next time conflict arises remember to S.T.O.P., step out of the ring and into their corner. This is your ally, friend, loved one or spouse and you are the same team.
(Disclaimer: I use imagery of physical aggression in my analogies. However, violence, verbal abuse, and physical aggression are never healthy or safe in a relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship you should seek the help of a licensed mental health therapist that specializes in domestic abuse. You can find a therapist near you on Psychology today's website. Violence is never acceptable, and you deserve real and safe intimacy.)