How to Solve Relationship Conflict

Couple having a serious discussion on the couch

Couple having a serious discussion | iStock/Getty Images Plus

The following is a guest post by Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist. She is the author of The Self-Aware Parent as well as a regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS TV, and co-star on Sex Box, WE tv.

The most common reason relationships deteriorate is poor conflict resolution skills and unhealthy communication. It is not the issue that is crucial, but rather developing healthy skills to “hang in” with each other and deal with conflicts. Most people either position defensively and attack their partner, run for cover, fall silent, or collapse into tears of hurt and helplessness.

No matter how non-judgmental and open we think we are, we all grow up with negative or critical messages that shape us. We all on some level categorize others in our minds.  Many of us have strong uncomplimentary opinions and we sometimes, intentionally or not, communicate these thoughts and ideas to others.  These messages, just like relationship styles, get handed down from generation after generation. So, if you are a negative or critical person, know that your style and your messages will likely carry through to your partner (and children, grandchildren and beyond). Even the most kind, patient, and loving person slips into a negative statement once in a while.

  • Be aware of your own issues.  Be accountable and own up to your part of the problem.
  • Don’t react immediately.  Cool off first.  Listen carefully without interrupting to understand what doesn’t feel good to your partner and with genuine interest.
  • If you have a complaint or criticism, present it like an Oreo cookie couched between two positive statements so your partner will be more receptive and less defensive.
  • Stick to the topic.  Don’t bring in a laundry list of complaints about things that happened 10 years ago.
  • Use humor.  Laughing can diffuse the intensity of an argument, keep perspective, and help lighten up the moment.

Dr. Fran’s top 10 tips:

couple on a swing

Couple on a swing. | anyaberku/iStock/Getty Images Plus

  1. Accept the fact that all of us grow up with messages of bias. Know where biases and judgments exist within you.  Own it.  Then you can decide whether you want to alter those beliefs.
  2. Take an honest look inside. Notice if your anxiety rises when things are not in place, organized, or delivered on schedule.  If you react by controlling, you may be a perfectionist. Practice allowing your anxiety to rise and notice how much you can tolerate before taking control. Try raising the ceiling on your maximum tolerance level. Your goal is to be able to bear the anxiety that comes with imperfection.
  3. Don’t compare your partner to others. Measure your spouse/companion by his or her own standards.
  4. Stay flexible.  Remember that rigidity is not healthy.
  5. Be open-minded. Remind yourself that there is always more than one way to view and deal with a situation.
  6. If you are engaged in a power-struggle, let go of the arm wrestling. Your partner can only keep tugging if there is someone on the other end pulling in the opposite direction.
  7. Rules and boundaries must be stated with clarity, not anger. Be clear and concise, yet kind and empathic in your delivery.
  8. Know that if you’re a critical person life really is a little harder. Your expectations for yourself are greater than most. Feel empathy for yourself so that you can feel empathy for your partner.
  9. Stay open to listening to and hearing your partner’s feelings. You don’t have to agree with his or her demands. But everyone wants to be heard, validated, and understood. So, give that courtesy to your companion.
  10. The strongest motivator for change is pain. Don’t wait for something terrible to happen. Make improving your relationship and the lifelong happiness of you and your partner your motivation.

Dr. Fran Walfish is a couples, relationship, and family psychologist and author in Beverly Hills, California. In addition to her private practice, she was on the clinical staff in the department of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 15 years. Walfish was also a school psychologist and recently completed a four-year-term as chair of the board of The Early Childhood Parenting Center founded at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.   

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