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How to Communicate Effectively with Your Partner During Conflict

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How to Communicate Effectively with Your Partner During Conflict

# 1 Stick to the topic 

Have you ever had that feeling during a heated discussion that you can’t quite remember what it was that sparked the argument in the first place? This tends to happen when we rehash old material – when we add old hurts, pet peeves and baggage onto the pile. Suddenly it feels like a free for all. Finding your way through conflict is difficult enough when you are focusing on just one issue. Adding in extra stuff is a recipe for confusion, heightened emotions and general mayhem.

#2 Take turns to listen to each other’s perspective

Consciously decide to truly listen to each other. This is a powerful (and deceptively simple) way of turning down the emotional volume of an argument. When it’s your turn to listen, resist acting on any urges to interrupt, defend yourself or blame the other person. Try, if you can, to simply listen. You might need to keep reminding yourself to do this repeatedly as your partner speaks!

When we are in defensive-mode our thinking becomes biased. It can feel like you and your partner don’t agree on anything. To counter this keep an ear out for the parts of your partner’s point of view that make sense to you or that you empathise with. After listening to each other what do you notice about the emotional intensity of the discussion?

#3 Reach out and repair

According to Dr John Gottman, a leading expert on the science of romantic relationships, happy couples are skilled at repair attempts. Repair attempts are anything you do or say to prevent a fight from getting out of control. Repair attempts put the brakes on that flooded feeling that most of us experience when faced with conflict. Your stress levels are instantly reduced, preventing you from getting to a place where you feel bombarded by your emotions and unable to think clearly. Repair attempts move couples away from damaging words and defensive behaviours towards connection. Dr John Gottman refers to repair attempts as “the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples”. To read more about using repair attempts in your relationship take a look at our blog here.

#4 Reflect on your own conflict style

Following a particularly heated conflict, if you ask someone to describe what their partner did to contribute to the situation typically they will have no trouble coming up with explanations (often there will be a long list!). When you ask someone to describe their own role in the conflict though, sometimes the ideas are a little less free-flowing!

After conflict, consider spending some time thinking about your own behaviour (warning: confronting stuff can come up here). What role did you play in sparking and fuelling the conflict? Do you sometimes find yourself blaming, criticising, attacking or shaming your partner? Is there anything that you routinely do or say during conflict that you typically regret after? What sorts of things did you do or say to try to reach out to your partner or to step out of the conflict? Are there any patterns that come up with your current partner that have emerged in previous relationships? Are these patterns likely to continue to cause you trouble? If you think they might, consider taking time to understand these patterns, perhaps with the help of a close family member or friend, or a couples counsellor or psychologist.

#5 Be specific, not global

When we feel hurt, angry or anxious our thinking tends to become black and white, all or nothing. So instead of telling our partner that we’re upset because they’ve arrived home late we make global statements like “you never keep me in the loop about what you’re up to” or “everyone else is always more important than me”. These sorts of statements are blaming and critical.

When people feel blamed and criticised they tend to do one of two things: 1) blame and criticise in return, or 2) withdraw, shut down or emotionally “cut off” the other person. It’s also difficult to come up with solutions to global statements; whereas coming up with ways to manage specific behaviours is usually possible (with some time and space to think things through).

#6 Limit time spent in conflict

Most of us know that dreaded, stuck feeling that arises when you go around and around and around in circles during a disagreement. No matter how many different ways you present your point of view to your partner they just don’t seem to get where you are coming from! Beyond a certain point (and the threshold varies from couple to couple) continuing to engage in heated discussion is frustrating and potentially damaging – to the relationship and to you. Only you and your partner can know what your limits are. You may each have different thresholds, so it’s essential that you have this discussion when you are in a conflict-free-zone.

#7 Be specific about how and when you will reconnect

Just as important as agreeing on when you will step out of conflict, is agreeing on how you will reconnect after you have both had a chance to calm your body and your mind. It can help to agree on a rough timeframe for “cooling down”. If one or both people are feeling particularly overwhelmed you may need at least 15-20 minutes. As a rough rule of thumb, try not to leave it for more than 24 hours or the break might do more harm than good (because resentment can build, or avoidance can set in).

You will need your own plan for taking care of yourself in the interim between pausing the conflict and reconnecting. For many different reasons (often related to upbringing and past experiences) some people find it difficult to be compassionate and caring towards themselves when they feel overwhelmed by emotions, particularly those triggered by relationships with others. If this is the case for you, consider speaking with a psychologist or couples counsellor about this further. Psychologists and couples counsellors are experts at helping people to understand the intricacies of emotions in relationships.

Although the suggestions above refer specifically to interactions with your partner, most of these ideas will be enhance your communication when navigating conflict in any type of relationship.

If you want some extra support with working through conflict in your relationship book a session with one of our couples therapists via our online booking form here.

The photo in this image is by Jazmin Quaynor.

About the Author:

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Dr Jacqueline Baulch is a clinical psychologist and the director of Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology. She is passionate about shifting the "hush-hush" atmosphere surrounding mental illness, emotions and vulnerability. Jacqueline believes that open and real conversations can spark hope and healing, and help us to feel less alone in this messy business of being a human.