We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again; conflict is everywhere. And, as we’re sure you know, your relationship with your significant other is not immune to its inevitability. S Lynn Knight published an article recently on Medium that reflects on some of the important roles that conflict plays in relationships. There are good and bad ways to deal with conflict when it arises in a committed relationship; let’s look at a few of them.
Let’s say that, looking at an example that Lynn Knight uses, your spouse has “a shockingly extreme reaction when you say, ‘Who at the last bit of mint chocolate chip ice cream?” You were just looking for dessert and figured you’d see if they were the one who ate the ice cream, but they suddenly start crying, or yelling at you about the dishes, or just shut down entirely. You’re left standing in front of the freezer wondering “What the heck just happened?” Depending on how you deal with conflict, you might respond with equal vigor. You might storm off. You might backtrack and tell them not to get upset and that you’ll buy more. You might comfort them until they calm down and then never speak of it again.
At ORANS we’re interested in what responses will help be most helpful for both you and others. To draw from Lynn Knight again, you want “a relationship that can withstand the turbulent forces of inner growth while the outside winds of grief, illness, employment, unemployment, children and change try to blow your house down.” Relational skills are the storm proof windows that will help keep the house standing strong when conflict rolls around. Let’s look harder at how to keep your house strong.
A great place to start when considering how to build your relational skills in order to better prepare yourself to deal with conflicts with a significant other is to get grounded. Being grounded means being self-aware, especially in regards to how you deal with conflicts. Lynn Knight writes of her own journey to self-awareness, noting that she used to think that “a good relationship consisted mostly of not being abandoned, so I did whatever was necessary to tamp down the flames of discord and smooth ruffled feathers.” Understanding her natural reaction to conflict was an important growth edge for Lynn, and that understanding helps her to deal with it when it arises.
Understanding your own tendencies and taking action to moderate them requires a strong desire to examine what is true about yourself with honesty and humility. Being grounded means being aware of your tendencies when they assert themselves in your thinking, recognizing when they are leading you to behavior that is not relational, learning to relax them when they are in excess, and acting deliberately instead of reacting based on your habits. So, if you’re conflict avoidant, you notice when you’re shutting down during a conflict and actively choose to remain engaged with the other. If you’re reactive, you feel yourself beginning to react to something too quickly and you take a deep breath before you do anything.
By becoming aware of her personal tendencies, Lynn Knight was eventually able to “learn and trust that I could argue, even fall down on the floor in a tantrum, say things I didn’t mean (because we all do), and see for myself that it didn’t mean the end of my marriage in a heap of abandonment.” Your relationship may or may not look like Lynn Knight’s, but being grounded can help you to know how to best work with your partner to overcome obstacles as they arise. Self-awareness will help you to be more relational during conflicts, and will help small issues (like someone eating the last bit of ice cream) stay small.
Another good way to keep small conflicts from escalating is to (in the words of Lynn Knight) “keep […] the relationship ‘fit’ so things do not pile up to the point of no return. Here’s where the smaller dust ups come in. They’re like the subtle, nose wrinkling smell in the fridge of some formless thing way in the back that’s turning and you’d better get in there, find it and throw it out. No shortcutting it with a box of baking soda.” Checking in with your partner if you feel like something might be wrong naturally reduces the chance that a problem regarding the last bite of ice cream is going to turn into a problem regarding what you said to your significant other’s sister the last time you saw her.
Catching those moments where things seem slightly off, though, requires you to be engaged with your partner. When you’re with your significant other, you are attentive to them. This is a learned skill. You make it a point to pay attention to them. You ignore your cell phone. You close your laptop, your tablet or any other device dividing your attention. Your eyes focus on your partner, noticing their expression, their eyes, mouth, posture, and gestures. You stop thinking. You make mental and emotional space for the other to enter your experience. You don’t analyze, interpret, or prepare to understand your partner. You listen fully to them. This makes it much easier to catch the hook in their tone, the wincing facial expression, or the uncharacteristic phrasing that might be a telltale sign that something’s off. Being engaged is the best way to make sure that conflicts are dealt with as they arise, rather than well off down the road.
Being engaged is also critical in making sure problems aren’t merely covered up with “baking soda.” Engaging with the other in a relational way will help you to work out problems as they arise in a way that will create lasting positive change. You know that storms will come; being relational means that you work to become more aware of when there might be dark clouds gathering on the horizon and you have the skills and attitudes of quality dialogue to help you create outcomes that are good for both you and others.