Did you know that your relationship is probably healthier and closer if you engage in some conflict? This is because being conflict avoidant 1 and trying to sidestep or bury your feelings when you don’t agree with your partner creates distance and a sense of hopelessness. We need to create a climate of openness and vulnerability so we can establish the intimacy and trust that allows us to stay with something until both partners feel understood. Then you have a chance of jointly addressing the problem in a way that can create the emotional safety that we crave. Then, when you can rely on each other to create a climate of generosity of spirit, it becomes safe and productive to disagree.
Having some tools and resources for handling your own and your partner’s distress during conflict is a relationship game changer. Fights often have a theme and rhythm with their own reoccurring ebb and flow, but with the right tools you can have interactions that extend empathetic understanding whether you land in a place of agreement or not.
So here are some ways you and your partner can handle yourselves during conflictual times. This is not therapy, but using these tools can contribute to an outcome that fosters closeness rather than distance.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage stress and anxiety without relying on someone else or on your own destructive, toxic behavior to feel better. Self-regulation, or self-soothing, as it is often called, gets a lot of “press” because it promotes rugged individualism and independence. Originally promoted within the addiction field when it was seen that simply changing the patient didn’t lead to lasting change, it was understood that others would resist or sabotage change in the identified patient by acting in ways that had the addict return to the destructive behavior. These “others” were labeled codependent or enablers. So a lot of emphasis was put on each person learning to manage their own distress so as not to “pull” the other into a dance of familiar patterns or maladaptive behaviors simply to make themselves feel better.
However, current research on trauma and addiction is finding that, actually, it is trying to cope with stress/trauma as an individual in isolation without a support system that is mainly at the root of addiction and PTSD, so we now see there are limits to the benefits of self soothing.
Sell-regulation is a valuable skill because being ever-reliant on others to make us feel better is exhausting as well as futile. But the thing is, we are creatures of co-regulation, defined most broadly as a “continuous unfolding of individual action that is susceptible to being continuously modified by the continuously changing actions of the partner.”
This means that we are affected by and tend to tune into the emotional state and signals of the one we are interacting with; affecting each other is a natural part of being in relationship.
For instance, in those times when you get home from work agitated and your partner calmly sits and listens to your concerns it helps you to express what is troubling you and possibly even removes some of the emotional turmoil you are feeling. Contrast this to a partner who is only half present as they sit with you, is dismissive, or themselves get agitated and you find you are now reacting to their emotional state more than your own.
So, the first tip is to stay aware that your partner is going to be affected by your state—what you say and do and how you look at them. Stay on the calm side while your partner is expressing criticism, complaint, or disappointment. This will ultimately help you get through the conflict more harmoniously. This is different than numbing out or distracting yourself so you don’t get triggered; it is more like giving your partner respect and an opportunity to share with you what is happening in their world. And remember: No matter how different or irrational some one else’s opinion seems, it makes perfect sense in their world, so be curious and find out what it is.
How can you do that? Here are some ways.
The first tool is reflective listening. Although this can initially be awkward, with practice it is a comforting and bonding way to interact. Simply, you reflect back to your partner, every few sentences, what you have understood them to say.
For instance, “So, what I am hearing is when I come to bed an hour or so after you, you feel rejected and lonely? Is that right? OK, tell me more.”
What you are not doing is getting defensive: “Well, you know I had to finish cleaning the kitchen.” Nor are you analyzing them: “So it seems like when you are in bed by yourself you wonder why you ever got married if you were only going to spend so much time alone.”
Get it? You are listening to your partner so you can gain a better understanding of their inner world and concerns—so you can see how they make sense. You may not agree with them (often you won’t) but healthy partners are capable of hearing each other’s experience without thinking their own perspective is being invalidated. It actually enriches our world and capacity for compassion to be able to hear and even attempt to understand each other’s experience. So try reflective listening next time you are on the verge of conflict. In fact, mentioning to your partner that you’d like to try this, getting agreement beforehand, and practicing with the little stuff will really help out.
The second tool involves the way you breathe. We have a large nerve in our bodies called the Vagus nerve: the so called wandering nerve. “Essentially, it is part of a circuit that links the neck, heart, lungs, and the abdomen to the brain.”4 When it is strong, it helps us be more resilient to stress. And there is a simple exercise to make it stronger: Simply breathe out for a slightly longer length of time than you breathe in. So, for example, if you breathe in to the count of 6 you would exhale to the count of 9 or 10. Doing this as a daily practice for 5 or more minutes a day, and using it when you are agitated, is a good way to both calm yourself down and strengthen this nerve so it is more resilient.
The third tool is a really a simple postural change that can help you with anger. At the first sign that you are feeling agitated and starting to get angry, sit with the palms of your hands facing upward, such as resting on your knees. The sooner you do this — before you are actually launched into the feelings of anger — the easier it will be to make the decision to do it. Often, once we are launched into anger we are so invested in being right that letting go is near impossible. Just remember: You have a choice. You can be right and in opposition to your partner or you can relax, drop your position for the moment, and be connected to your partner so you can create at least a chance of resolving the conflict and having a win/win.