What Does Healthy Conflict Look Like?

relationship_healthy_conflictAs a marriage counselor, when I see a couples for the first time, I frequently observe how each partner tries to show the other (and me) that they’re in the right on a particular issue and their partner is wrong. When this happens, I am quick to point out that when couples are focused on righteousness, their relationship can quickly become the big loser in this dynamic.

What is “Fair Fighting?”

The goal in fair fighting is for couples to try to understand and completely take in their partner’s perspective. This is not as easy as it appears to be. To do so, both partners must at least temporarily let go of their position and understand their partner fully. They need to not just understand their partner’s stance in a factual way, but they also need to fully absorb their partner’s emotional place about the issue in question. Fortunately, with effort and practice, couples can reach this goal of having a “respectful disagreement.”

Not surprisingly, fighting fair really doesn’t involve any fighting at all. Engaging in an open dialogue, which is done respectfully and tactfully while sharing each other’s viewpoints, is far from a fight. If you were to witness a healthy couple disagreeing on an issue, it would be hard to determine that they were having a difference of opinion because of the how skilled they are in having a respectful discussion/disagreement.

Keep Negative Emotions Out of The Room

Before engaging in any controversial discussion, it’s important that both partners not only check their righteousness at the door, but also to be sure to check their temperature before starting any conversation. If they’re too frustrated or angry, any subsequent exchange is highly unlikely to become a healthy and respectful dialogue. Both partners should take the time to self-soothe or calm themself down before addressing any issues with their partner.

Sometimes calling a timeout in the middle of the discussion may also be necessary to regain composure. John Gottman’s research indicates that if the heart rate is greater than 100 beats per minute, people are too upset to engage in a productive conversation (partly because they physiologically can’t process information or truly listen). If a break is required in order for one partner to calm down, it is important to always schedule a follow-up discussion, so the other person does not feel put off or stonewalled.

6 Quick Tips to Engage in a Healthy and Productive Discussion

  1. Speak to your partner in the first person, using “I” statements instead of “You” statements, which can come across as criticism or an attack: “You always do this…” Also, try to avoid absolutes such as “always” or “never” in your statements, which usually only upset your partner and are rarely true anyway.
  2. Use feeling words like, “I’m feeling frustrated/sad/glad/mad” to express yourself. It’s also important not to interrupt your partner, letting him finish his thoughts before speaking.
  3. Try initiating a conversation in a gentle way which is also called using a “soft start-up.” To learn more about using a soft start-up, go here.
  4. After hearing his perspective, focus on truly understanding your partner’s position.
  5. Restate what your partner said to make sure you correctly understood him. This validates your partner, and makes him feel heard.
  6. Respectful dialogues maximize the chance of compromise, but there is no guarantee a compromise will be found. When no compromise or understanding is reached on an issue, the final step is to clearly determine how this issue will be handled in the future.

Remember that the “healthiest couples” have differences, but engage in respectful conversations and are skilled at dialoguing productively, often allowing them to reach an agreeable middle ground or compromise on any topic.

Sometimes, the best couples can do if they truly have different and uncompromising perspectives, is to agree to disagree. The issue can always be revisited at a later date, to see if there’s been a shift in information or a partner’s opinion, which might now allow a compromise to be reached.

One common trap couples should try to avoid is “issue hopping.” Make sure to completely finish discussing the current issue or problem before moving on to another one. Partners can take turns sharing what’s important to them.

Ultimately, remember that having a healthy difference of opinion doesn’t involve fighting or actual conflict. It’s the word choice, tone of voice, and respectful nature of the conversation that determine the quality and outcome of the discussion.

Category: Couples · Tags:

Comments are closed.