Is healthy conflict possible in a healthy marriage? Sometimes people wonder can healthy conflict even exist. There are so many negative connotations associated with the word conflict. How could that possibly be healthy? Well when we look at the definition of conflict as a noun it means to be in a serious disagreement or an argument or a squabble. This does sound pretty negative. As a verb it's more about being incompatible or being at variance with something or someone else. So conflict is not a terrible thing to happen. The truth is conflict is completely unavoidable in marriage. It's interesting how many clients that I work with; couples in particular, have a fantasy about a really healthy relationship being conflict free. This is not realistic. Can a marriage be free of aggression and free negativity? Absolutely but you cannot avoid conflict because people have different opinions and that's what conflict is. It's when people or positions are different. You don't agree. That's when we have conflict. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to escalate into something crazy every time you have a disagreement. Healthy conflict is to realize that you don't have to always agree with your partner. It's impossible to think that you will always agree with your partner. So having healthy conflict is understanding “I am NOT going to have the same opinions as my partner. I don't think exactly the same way as my partner does. We're going to disagree on some things and there's going to be some conflict in our opinions.” Successful relationships take action to resolve conflict. It's all about the action part of conflict. It's not about having the disagreement or having this difference in opinion or position; it's about how you have these differences. It's about how you manage through the process. I have 7 tips to help you have healthy conflict. When you really think about it's not that difficult to have healthy conflicts. The big problem is nobody ever taught us how to have healthy conflict.
Be Assertive But Not Aggressive
First thing we want to do is focus on being assertive and not aggressive. Being assertive is when you are being necessarily honest and being aggressive is being brutally honest. So you want to assert yourself by letting the other person know this is how you feel or this is your opinion. You lay your feelings out before your partner but you don’t throw them at your partner. “You must take what I know and you must agree with me!” That's aggressive. Being assertive means having an opinion and putting it out there.
Get To The Point
The second tip that is really helpful in having healthy conflict is to get to the point. Sometimes we feel really uncomfortable just entering into conflict because we never learned how to do this in a healthy way. In our experience it is always going to be aggressive not assertive. We get scared and we get nervous because who wants to get into a fight? That's not a desirable place to be. If you can get to the point and lay things out there, not in an aggressive but in an assertive way, that's going to help. When you avoid something or talk about it in a vague manner it just makes things much more confusing. And when people get confused they get agitated. Then it's going to probably escalate into something more aggressive like a fight.
Watch Your Body Language
The third tip to pay attention to your behavior like your body language or speaking volume. If you're using kinder words to be assertive instead of aggressive but you're standing there and you've got this aggressive face and when you're when your spouse or partner is saying something you're roll your eyes that's not going to help the situation. Those behaviors and mannerisms are also very aggressive. Really pay attention to your body language to your tone and try as hard as you can to be neutral. Assertive is being neutral but getting your point across.
Use “I” Statements
The fourth helpful Tip in a situation like this is to focus on replacing you statements with “I” statements. You know everyone's heard about this and it seems kind of silly but it's really effective. Think about when you say something like “I feel like you don't understand me at all” versus “I feel misunderstood.” The first example sounds kind of accusatory. Even though you’re saying “I feel” you also inserted “you” don't understand me. You might as well get rid of the “I feel” and just put you. It can be tricky to think “I feel sad, I feel disappointed, I feel misunderstood and leave it at that. Replacing you with I can be very helpful. It's a huge tip
Stay On Topic
Our fifth tip is to stay on topic. This can be very challenging but it's pretty simple when you think about it. If you are going to have conflict over a blue pillow on the couch or a red pillow on the couch then you want to stick with the blue and the red pillow. Oftentimes what happens is we start with the blue and the red pillow and then we escalate into “oh yeah and…”, “remember when…”, “this reminds me of…” We start throwing in all of these other situations that are not actually related to the blue and the red pillow. Try really hard to stay on one topic at a time.
The sixth tip is to slow down. When we are in conflict even if it's assertive or healthy conflict our nervous system gets really activated. When our nervous system gets activated we start talking fast and we start moving around in a fidgety manner. We might even start pacing around or standing instead of sitting. So we want to try to calm our nervous system down by slowing down. We want to focus on speaking slowly. Focus on moving slowly or actually sitting down; maybe at the kitchen table or on the couch. Sit down and look each other in the eyes while you're talking. We hardly ever do that but that's going to slow the conversation down. It's also going to help deactivate our nervous system as it relates to this particular conflict. If we can slow down we can get our nervous system to kick in to the part of the brain that is not reactive; the prefrontal cortex where we are reasonable and rational. We will continue to have a healthy conversation about conflict instead of escalating into a big huge fight. We won’t dip into the back part of brain where we have “fight, flight, freeze” old memories. This part of the brain is very reactive. It's trying to save your life; that's its primary function. When it's activated it's reactive and it's really fast. But if we can slow down, breathe, and slow down our nervous system we can access the part of the brain where we can actually have conversation with our partner.
Use Active Listening
The seventh and final point is to practice active listening. This is really hard to do because we've never been really taught to actively listen. We've been taught to listen and obey. Active listening is going to take some time to get yourself to feel comfortable doing it. It's also going to take some time to perfect. At first a conversation about a blue and a red pillow could take about an hour and all we're going to talk about is the blue in the red pillow. It's going to seem kind of wasteful but if we do it and we practice, you're going to be able to participate in active listening much quicker. It's a significantly better way to communicate because when we have conflict one of the biggest things we want to focus on is understanding. Does my partner understand me? Do I understand my partner? Does my partner understand these are really important because conflict is about having a difference of opinion? If your opinions are different you can't convince the other that their opinion is wrong but can try to understand their opinion. When you understand and validate each other the conversation goes so much smoother. So focus on two to three sentences at a time. Oftentimes we get stuck having tons and tons of things to say and then our partner literally can't keep track or can't remember everything that's just been said.
You've probably all experienced this. Stick to two or three sentences and then have your partner paraphrase what they've just heard. You're going to say something. Your partner is then going to paraphrase what they heard. You're going to then say yes that's right thank you or no that's not exactly what I meant and then you start over again. You say it in a different way and then they paraphrase until you both have equal understanding. When you both understand your position then you move on to the your partner and repeat the process where your partner states “this is my position” in two or three sentences and you keep going back and forth understanding each other's position. Once you understand each other's position then you can figure out what to do about it. This is going to take a long time. It's going to feel very slow but it's really effective.
When trying to have a happy marriage and fight without actually fighting we covered seven tips to get you to a place where you can have healthy conflict. We looked at focusing on being assertive and not aggressive, getting to the point, watch your body language and volume, replacing you with “I” statements, staying on topic, slowing down and practicing active listening. I’m sure if you and your partner practice using these tips.
Transcribed from a 7/18/19 Facebooklive