- Esther Perel is a couples therapist and the author of “Mating in Captivity” and “The State of Affairs.” She says it’s normal for couples to fight – but some couples resolve their fights better. Perel shared five strategies for resolving a conflict so you don’t say something you’ll regret and/or make the conflict seem more serious than it is.
“All couples fight,” says Esther Perel. “It is normal to fight. Aggression, anger, disappointment, frustration are normal experiences in any relationship. But some couples fight better and resolve their fights better and have a better way of reconnecting afterwards.”
Perel is a couples therapist who’s been practicing for over three decades. She’s seen her fair share of conflicts spiral out of control – and she’s been able to pinpoint multiple factors that can help defuse tension.
1. Cool off.
Perel advised taking a break to collect your thoughts before telling your partner off:
“If you think you’re about to say things that you’re going to regret, if you’re at boiling point, if you’re not about to go and resolve anything, but just [metaphorically] punch, you’re probably better off to first do anything to regulate yourself and to soothe yourself. Take a walk, take a run, have a shower, have a cup of tea, go off in your own room, quiet down. Some people need 20 minutes to just get back to baseline.
“Don’t talk because what’s going to come out – the affect, the tone, the resentment, the contempt, the defying features are going to really destroy the communication.”
Hopefully, your partner will understand and give you the space you need.
2. Stick to the topic.
The thing you really want to avoid here is something psychologists call “kitchen sinking.” In other words, you start bringing up everything that upsets you about the relationship.
Perel gave an example: “We begin to argue [about] where we’re going to go tomorrow night, and from there we continue to the fact that we can never agree on anything, that we keep on doing what you want all the time and that 10 years ago, already this began.”
More recently, psychologists have documented a phenomenon called “kitchen thinking,” when you start thinking about all those past, unrelated slights during a conflict – even if you don’t verbalize them.
Perel’s advice? “Stick to the thing that’s at hand right now. If you kitchen-sink and you bring in your entire relationship, you just start to see fog.”
3. Be mad at what your partner did – without resorting to personal attacks.
The “fundamental attribution error” describes what happens when we assume that other people’s behavior is the result of their intrinsic qualities, as opposed to a temporary situation.
For example: Your partner arrives late to dinner and you assume it’s because they’re generally inconsiderate, instead of thinking that maybe they got caught in traffic or held up at work.
“Be mad at what the person did without beginning to criticize the personality of the person and do a personal attack,” Perel said. “That, too will bring defensiveness and counterattacks and escalation.”
“On occasion, just stop talking and listen. Maybe you’ll actually hear something else rather than listening in order to know where you can barge in, interrupt, and bring your own point of view once again. Just listen and repeat what you just heard, because it forces you to step into the shoes of the other person and then maybe you’ll have better empathy and more compassion for what the other person is actually asking.”
Indeed, research suggests empathy and understanding are key to navigating conflict successfully in a relationship. And reflecting back what the other person is telling you can be as simple as saying, “So what I’m hearing you say is…”
Remember, too: If you hear something surprising and it alters your stance in the conflict, it’s okay to change your mind.
Perel said, “If you accept, if you give in, if you relinquish, it doesn’t mean that you’re humiliated. It means that you chose your battle and that not everything is a 10. Some things are just a 2. Keep them so.”
Take a step back. Is this fight over who used the last piece of toilet paper really that serious?
“Sometimes a lot of humor – or a little humor – goes a long way,” Perel said. “There is no stronger, better way to defuse futile arguments than a good dose of humor.”