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- In a relationship, some conflict is inevitable. But relationship experts say it’s all about how you manage it.
- Their top strategies include listening and reflecting back, displaying some vulnerability, and working on your communication skills.
- This post is part of Relationships 101, a series which aims to help us all be happier and healthier in love – and to stop fighting over who should take out the trash.
Once you’ve been in a relationship for a while, you start to get comfortable. You’re comfortable letting your partner see you without makeup, comfortable snort-laughing in front of them – and comfortable snapping at them the way you wouldn’t snap at pretty much anyone else in the world.
Unsurprisingly, that can be a problem. Instead of taking a step back and reflecting on the bigger picture as you would during, say, a conflict at work, the two of you shout. You name-call. You storm off in a huff.
The relationship experts I’ve interviewed have seen this pattern unfold time and time again. They’ve also devised several strategies for keeping everyday spats from spiraling out of control.
Below are some of their best, and most practical, tactics.
Couples therapist Esther Perel told me about the importance of letting your partner talk and then reflecting back what you heard them say.
That can be as simple as the phrase: “So what I’m hearing you say is…”
Perel said this strategy works 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.”
You may also hear something that (gasp!) changes your mind about the issue at hand.
Show some vulnerability
Your partner has the potential to hurt you like no one else can, largely because they know your weak points and hot buttons.
So when your partner says something hurtful, don’t pretend you’re made of emotional steel.
According to marriage and family therapist Hal Runkel, there’s one word that can defuse a conflict with your partner: “Ouch.” As in: “Ouch. That one hurt. I don’t know if you were meaning to hurt me; I don’t know if that’s what you were going for; but that’s what you did.”
Runkel said, “That conversation -which was a very familiar path, that fight – is now a totally different path because one of you chose to actually get vulnerable.” Once you acknowledge that you’ve wounded each other, you can start to make some progress toward repairing the relationship.
Learn good communication skills sooner rather than later
Couples can fight about the big stuff – whether to get married, what constitutes cheating – and the small stuff – whose turn it is to take out the trash, how often it’s OK to check your phone.
But as relationship expert and marriage counselor Rachel Sussman told me, all these conflicts come down to communication.
“If you’re someone who has really poor communication skills,” she told me, “that might mean that the minute your partner brings something up, you get very defensive, or you start with the ‘tit for tat.'” Which means that “no matter what you’re arguing about, that could escalate into a really big fight.”
Common sources of conflict among the couples she sees include sex, parenting, and finances. But working on your communication skills is a big step toward resolving them all.
“If you can communicate well, you can get through these issues in a way that can actually bring you closer together,” she said. “And if you can’t communicate well, it makes it so much worse and can actually tear you apart.”