Managing Relationship Conflict, Part Two
Written by Randi G. Fine
Excerpted from my April 19, 2012 show on A Fine Time for Healing, How to Fight Fair and Compromise With Your Partner
Sometimes arguments involve underlying issues or a conglomeration of issues that have yet to be dealt with. In that case, the issue at hand is only a symptom of a bigger problem. When bringing up a topic of contention, always be specific about your argument and remain focused on it. Stay in the present. Do not go off-topic or mix in non-relevant issues from the past. That is a revenge tactic that weakens your validity and causes your partner to lose trust in you.
To avoid the tendency to throw the “kitchen sink” at your partner when you are upset, air your feelings as they come up. Holding them inside only to dump a toxic load of issues on your partner at a later date is unfair. You may clearly remember what happened but your partner probably does not. Lack of clarity will cause you to argue minute details that you cannot possible agree on.
Remember that issues can only be resolved one at a time and in the present. Attacking someone with a smorgasbord of things he supposedly did in the past will only put him on guard. He cannot fight more than one battle at a time or backtrack to the past. As a result, his reaction may be one of anger and defensiveness or he may feel defeated and withdraw. Neither of these reactions is conducive to conflict-resolution.
Arguments seem fairer when each person takes responsibility for his or her feelings. This can be achieved through the use of “I” statements. For instance you may say, “When ___happens, I feel ___,” instead of, “When you ___, you make me ___.” The first statement represents how you are feeling, the second statement sounds accusatory and blaming.
The next tactic is a major pet peeve of mine. To keep conflicts fair do not exaggerate points by saying, “you always…” or “you never….” These statements automatically put the other person on the defensive and feeling the need to say, “I do not always…” or “How can you say I never…” When this happens both parties lose sight of the original argument and a blaming match ensues.
Assuming responsibility for your feelings and acknowledging the role you play in a situation means no blaming, no insults, no foul language, no sarcasm, no name calling, and no character assassinations. These “below the belt” tactics, usually used when one feels as if he is losing the battle, demonstrate childishness.
When you attack the person instead of the issue it is hurtful and disrespectful; it breaks down communication and destroys trust. These tactics escalate anger, derail the focus of the argument, and make mutual agreements impossible.
It is similarly destructive to use threats and demands or withhold affection to get one’s way. These are manipulative tactics used to back someone into a corner. They are hurtful and very unfair. Unless one is going to go through with it, threatening to leave a relationship or get a divorce when he or she does not get his way is low-down and dirty. Once threats and demands are thrown in the mix, a simple problem becomes a monumental issue that the entire relationship seems to hinge upon.
It should go without saying that the use or threat of physical force on someone, such as pushing, restraining, or hitting, is never acceptable. Breaking things, punching walls, and hurling objects are equally as threatening and violent. If the arguments in your relationship ever escalate to this dangerous level, whether perpetrator or victim, you must understand the seriousness and seek professional help.
Ending an argument in a positive way is vital to the continuation of a healthy relationship. It is neither positive nor healthy to apologize for something you did not do, just for the sake of ending an argument. But if either partner changes his or her mind or decides to surrender at any time during the fair-fighting process, he or she should be allowed to retreat with dignity.
Not all problems are easily solvable. The more complex the issue, the more attempts it may take to work through it. Some people require more time and space than others to come to terms with an issue or reach an agreeable compromise. As long as each party is up front and honest about his or her needs, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a specified amount of leeway.
The needs and feelings of both parties must be considered when resolving a disagreement. Each partner must feel understood, cared for, and secure in the relationship before a mutually satisfactory compromise can be attained.
Compromise requires flexibility and options. For every solvable problem there are several solutions. Each partner should bring a few ideas to the table and then evaluate each other’s proposals by discussing the pros and cons of them. This is a brainstorming process that allows for the levity of humor. It is much easier to work as a team when both parties are laughing.
Before finalizing the compromise, be certain that both parties are comfortable with the terms and that no one will be left with residual bad feelings. Understand that there is rarely a “perfect” compromise; one party usually has to give in a little more than the other. That said, one partner should never have to give in more often than the other one does or make sacrifices. That may sound confusing if you have always believed that sacrifice and compromise is the same thing.
Some partners claim that they sacrifice to make their relationship work. To sacrifice means to forfeit something one person considers valuable for something he believes is of greater importance.
Sacrifices in relationships involve giving up an important aspect of the self to benefit someone else, and never getting it back. That depletes the one who is sacrificing and endows the other. The balance of the relationship is thrown off more and more with each sacrifice.
If you are always the one asking for forgiveness, even when you have done nothing wrong, you may be on the losing end of a manipulative, controlling relationship. This may indicate a deeper problem that fair-fighting skills and compromise cannot address.
Though intrinsically different, it may be difficult to distinguish where a sacrifice lets off and a compromise begins. That is because, conceptually, a very thin line divides the two actions. More simply put, when one person gives in more than the other it is called a sacrifice. When both parties mutually sacrifice it is no longer a sacrifice but a compromise.
A compromise is a settlement of differences in which each side makes a concession that keeps the overall balance of the relationship equal. Neither party gives up anything. They come to an agreement that is mutually satisfying. Compromise is essential to the success of a relationship; sacrifice is detrimental to it.
Closure is necessary after a compromise is reached. If reparations need to be made, make them. Apologize if you were wrong; just be careful when choosing your words. Your words should convey that you take or share responsibility for what happened. Be careful not to use blame in your apology by saying, “I am sorry you took it the way you did” or “I am sorry you misinterpreted my intentions.” Those are not apologies. They will only restart the argument or cause lingering resentment.
Do whatever you can to make your partner feel safe in expressing his or her apology. That is an act of humility on his or her part so accept it graciously. Give forgiveness whether or not it is asked for. Ask for forgiveness if it is due. This is all crucial to the healing process.
If you are someone who has difficulty admitting you are wrong or finds it hard to say you are sorry, examine your motives. There should be no shame in admitting you made a mistake or erred in judgment. Ask yourself if it is more important for you to be right than it is to reach a resolution. Are you open to looking at another perspective? Once you can acknowledge that your reality is not everyone’s reality, your relationships will be much more successful.
Couples do not have to share all the same opinions for their relationship to work. If in the midst of an argument you cannot come to an agreement and want to disengage from it, there is always the option of agreeing to disagree. It is a perfectly acceptable compromise as long as both of you can let go of the issue without carrying lingering resentments.
There may be times when a conflict cannot be resolved, no matter how fairly the argument has been fought. When this happens, a neutral third party such as clergy, a psychologist, mediating counsel, or a psychiatrist should be consulted. Trained professionals can provide an environment that feels safe, making both of you comfortable enough to express your feelings. Therapists can provide guidance that gets to the heart of matter, teach you how to effectively communicate as a couple, and prepare you for future problem solving.
To listen to this show in its entirety, please go to http://www.blogtalkradio.com/randi-fine/2012/04/19/how-to-fight-fair-and-compromise-with-your-partner
Read: Managing Relationship Conflict, Part One