Conflict in Relationships: Help Make Peace, Not War

Conflict in Relationships

When we get into a scrape with the person we love we often wind up in a difficult place. We sometimes hurt and feel unloved. Maybe we get mad at our mate and sulk or lash out. These are very common positions that many couples engage in. No one likes them. They are difficult and unpleasant.

As a couples specialist I am always trying to understand how to explain relationships in the simplest ways so people can improve how they interact with the person they love. And as I was thinking about this concept it occurred to me that there are really two places we end up occupying after a fight. We are either doing something about our partners or we are doing something about ourselves.

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How to Stop Arguing with My Spouse, Boyfriend, or Girlfriend

How to Stop Aruging with Your Spouse, Boyfriend, or Girlfriend

Wonder how to stop arguing? If you have nothing to say that will help things, sometimes the best medicine is to remove yourself from the situation until you have some time to cool down and think.

Have you ever been so mad at your mate that you just can’t get yourself to talk with them? You know it’s not right that you refuse to tell them what is going on but there is something inside you that will just not budge. No matter what your thoughts are or what they are saying to you, you remain tight-lipped and silent.

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The Hidden Connection Between “I Love You” and “Sorry”

I'm Sorry, and...I Love You

When we think of saying I love you to someone we certainly don’t think that I am sorry belongs in the same category. In our heads they seem far apart. One is an expression of our truest most wonderful feelings for a special person. The other is said when we think we might have hurt someone and we want to make it better.

So what would tie the two together? Before we see the connection I want to talk about how we learn each concept. The loving sentiment we might have heard from our parents when we were small. We might have heard them say, “I love you.” We might have been encouraged as children to say it to others, maybe grandparents or other relatives, and we probably heard it from them. We learn this is a good thing to say. Maybe we learn it’s just for families.

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How to Handle Conflict for a Happy, Healthy Marriage

How to Handle Conflict in Relationships

Learning how to handle conflict in a relationship is tough, because it forces us to challenge our instincts.

When people get their feelings hurt, most of us don’t want to go near the person who hurt them. This holds true in families, with co-workers and in relationships. It’s just easier to back away when something painful happens. It’s just the way many humans are wired.

As a couples specialist I know that even with the person we love, for some of us it’s instinctive to pull away when things get messy. I work with people who love each other who just want to know what to do when they fight. They usually wonder if they could do the fighting part better so they don’t have to stay wounded and apart for so long.

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For Those Who Can’t Say I’m Sorry

stubborn husband won't apologize, wife won't apologize either

There is pain in our world. There is pain among couples who carry hurt feelings and just can’t heal them. I see this often in my work as a relationship counselor. Another thing I see is a statement from some people that goes like this, “I don’t like to apologize.”

Some are even more emphatic with, “I don’t ever say I’m sorry.” This is not uncommon for some people to think this way. Many people believe that if you apologize, you are showing a sign of weakness. Weakness is something many people believe they have to avoid at all cost.

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When Couples Learn to Communicate

As a couples specialist I am sometimes humbled by the changes I see people make to improve their relationships.  It’s not that I don’t believe it can happen; it’s just that more often than not couples stay locked in their differences and expect the other person in the relationship to make the changes.

I spend a lot of time listening to how wounded people are because of what the other person has done to them.  I know it’s important for people to be heard because often they have exhausted themselves trying to tell their partner what is wrong and they just can’t get understanding.  I do know that listening to each person tell me about their perceived pain caused by the other has value, at least someone is listening.

But sometimes couples, or individuals in a relationship, can stay so wounded they see their mate as the one who causes their suffering.  They are so hurt from past injuries that they can not see anything but the harm caused to them.

When one or both people in the relationship stay bound up in their pain there is little I can do but listen.  I can not help someone get awareness on how they treat their partner if they are still living in the mistreatment they believe they have suffered.  Sometimes they are just so hurt they just see their mate as a monster.

It doesn’t matter how I encourage the couple to look at the possibilities of living happily with their chosen partner.  It does little good to talk about the ingredients that make up a good relationship.  If one or both people are suffering from unresolved wounds the couple can not move into a more neutral space.  And yet sometimes, that’s exactly what happens.

Twice in the last two weeks, two couples I had been working with, that had deep difficulties and lots of pain, moved the relationship to the next level.  I could sense it the moment they walked into the room.  There was a decrease in stress and worry and sadness.  I felt something else; a calm, an ease, tenderness.

So what happened?  In both cases one or both changed how they treated the other. In one of the couples one of the partners was mad about past hurts and kept accusing the partner of repeating the behavior.  Then in an instant after a disagreement this partner got some awareness about how they displayed harshness toward the other.  They immediately called the partner and apologized, and that was a first.  Both felt something new; a bit of closeness that they had been craving for years.

The other couple described an incident that they navigated without blowing up at each other.  In the past this issue would have ended with arguing and swearing and disconnection.  This time they walked delicately through the rough parts and stayed away from blaming the other.  Both worried about hurting the others’ feelings.  And that was a first for this couple too.

In both cases I was amazed and humbled by the beautiful changes I was able to witness.  Are all their problems solved? Of course not.  But what they discovered together is a new way of feeling, and those feelings felt good.  The human spirit wants to feel good.  Sometimes we just have to try something new to create something better.  Trust that you can find your way.  I know I do.

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But I’m Right! Why Can’t My Partner See That?

I really empathize with couples that begin a session with one person telling me something like this, “Why doesn’t my partner realize I am right?” Immediately I know that the pair sitting in front of me is in despair. I know that to live in a relationship where one person professes to have the right in the relationship while seeing the other as wrong puts both at a disadvantage. I know that both people may be feeling exhausted and sad.

Unfortunately this pattern often repeats itself; arguments unfold where one person insists he/she is right while the other feels inadequate or blamed. This person may feel right too, but it’s likely he/she has given up trying to have his/her voice heard and might be depressed. And it’s not uncommon for two people to point the finger at one another and say he, or she is to blame. In this scenario both people have to be right and everyone loses.

It may be the way we were raised, where blame had to be affixed to a problem. If this is what we experienced as a young person we might bring this aspect of how to relate to others into our own adult relationship. When there is a problem, look for the culprit. Identify the culprit, get the culprit to accept responsibility and force them to agree to learn from the mistake and not make it again.

Some people parent or train people this way. It’s designed to help people become accountable for their actions. This method has a place, but I believe it blows up the idea of mutual respect in a relationship if you use it with your mate. It allows one person to be in the position of knowing, while the other person is placed in the position of being taught. These positions are not equal and they make one or both people feel pretty unsatisfied.

The one who needs to be right can’t get relief because the other won’t listen. The one who is being told they are wrong resists because no one wants to feel blamed or bad. This kind of pattern usually leaves couples in a stalemate. Both want something from the other person. Both are not sure how to get it. It’s possible that the one who has to be right just wants to be listened too. It’s also possible that the one who is being blamed just wants to feel valued, and not persecuted.

Couples with this pattern may grow exhausted with each other. It takes a lot of energy defending your position all the time. It also takes a lot of energy tuning out your mate. Why not discover a way to use that energy in a more productive way; getting your needs met so you feel better?

When I work with couples with this type of interaction, I like to begin the process of helping each person understand his or her behaviors. The beginning part of dismantling this kind of system is understanding how we interact with our mate. Partners begin to get an idea of how they communicate with each other. This then leads to awareness of how the communication impacts the partner.

Helping couples understand the weight of their words is some of the early work. Also important is figuring out what each person needs. It’s possible that the person who has to be right just wants to feel valued and important. The more she stresses that she is right the harder she tries to feel valued and important.

The one who is being blamed could also benefit from becoming aware of how he responds. Maybe he tunes out his partner when he hears her insist she is right. Maybe he rolls his eyes or just shakes his head. What ever he is doing is important to look at during a counseling session. Understanding that his reaction has an impact on her is also important. And what are his needs that aren’t being met? Maybe he wants to feel valued too. Maybe he wants to have his voice heard as well.

In my experience that’s usually what two people in a relationship want: to be heard, to feel listened to, and acceptance. When these basic needs are fulfilled, couples flourish. They can even begin to experience a deeper connection with each other, one that may include making the other person happy, and when couples reach that level both people feel they are in a relationship worth having.

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Rules for Our Relationships

Making rules to govern a relationship sounds like something kids would do, but what if a set of rules helps couples treat each other.  Would you follow a few guidelines then?  We all learn to follow rules when we are little.  Rules show us right from wrong.  Rules keep us safe, coloring within the lines, or in other words, they keep us grounded.

As a couples specialist I wouldn’t say anyone really needs rules, but sometimes partners treat each other so poorly rules might actually help.

I work with many different kinds of couples.  Some partners speak kindly to each other, but many do not.  By the time couples enter counseling they have probably spent a lot of time saying mean things to their partners.  In some cases those mean things can even include swear words and degrading remarks.   Most couples that swear at each other know they should not be hollering at their partners and yet they do it anyway, most likely when an argument occurs.  It might even become a well worn pattern developed over time.

So how do couples learn to be nicer to each other?  Why not make a rule? NO SWEARING AT EACH OTHER.  Why not create an environment with a cuss free zone?

It’s likely you don’t cuss at work or call your boss names.  It’s probably safe to say you wouldn’t holler and yell these phrases at your parents or your children, so why not outlaw swearing because it’s something you shouldn’t do to your mate either?

You say you love your partner.  Show them by refraining from calling them names.  This conveys respect, and often in relationships that’s what’s missing.  It may be hard to break a habit if this has been ongoing for a while, but you and your partner can do this.  Just make a rule.  You made promises to each other when you first got together.  Make this another promise.  “I promise to not swear at you any more.”  Say this to each other, and mean it.  Practice it.  Maybe you put a jar in the kitchen and every time you slip you put in a quarter, or a dollar.  Make a game of it.  Just do something different to change how you talk to each other.

Both of you probably want to feel better in your relationship.  Speaking nicer to your mate is a great way to start.  If you are interested in another step, how about doing one nice thing for your partner every week?  This is a change from not doing anything nice for your partner to doing something nice for them.  Most of the couples I work with tell me they are waiting for their mate to do something for them.  Sometimes this wait goes on for a long time.  Doing something for the partner you are mad at is very different then waiting for them to be nice to you.

Imagine what it would be like in your home if the one you are at odds with actually does something special just for you?  Now think how he or she would feel if you did something special for him or her. You are trying on new behaviors.  When you do something different you get something different in exchange.  Maybe it will be a thank you.  Maybe it will be astonishment.  Maybe you will get a laugh.  It may be an improvement.

And isn’t this what you are after, something new, something different, something hopeful?

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When Your Partner Lies To You

We’ve all told lies in our lives; little ones and maybe big ones.  We’ve all learned the consequences of getting caught.  Many of us realize it’s better to tell the truth the first time around than worry about the lie we told and wonder if the truth will emerge eventually.

When we tell lies we hold secrets from the ones we love.  We might even think we are protecting them from something that will hurt them.  We figure in our mind that not telling them is probably better.  Telling them would cause them pain and we don’t want to hurt them because we really care about their feelings.  Or maybe we’re just afraid of what will happen to us if we tell the truth about something difficult.  Maybe we’re worried that we will be in trouble and people will get angry with us.

Not telling the truth takes skill, and thought.  The person telling the lie has to think about making up a story where all the pieces are plausible.  They have to make sure there are no holes an insightful person could see through.  It can be stressful on the lie teller.  He or she also has to remember the lie, and the details, and not forget what order he or she put them in.  That’s stressful too.

So that’s one side, the person telling the lie.  But what about the person who is lied to?  What happens there?

The one who is told the lie may feel angry, betrayed and ridicules, like they’ve been made a fool of.  It can be belittling and crazy making.  Some people believe that a lie, no matter how small, is a broken trust.  Many people believe that trust is one of the cornerstones in a relationship and when trust is broken they are shaken to the core because what they had believed about their relationship as fundamental is now crumbling underneath them.  They believed there would be truth between each other.  When there is a lie, that truth becomes a joke.

So how do couples heal when there are lies that sit between them?

First, each person deserves to explain and have the other person listen to his and her feelings.  It feels terrible to have been lied to.  It feels terrible to hold secrets and lie to your partner.  Both positions need understanding and compassion.  The one who lied has to become aware of the pain he or she caused the other.  That doesn’t mean you have to fall on your sword and grovel for the next year.  The liars’ job is to realize that his or her actions caused pain.  Once they realize this then he or she should begin to cultivate compassion for their mate by understanding the hurt they caused.  An apology is part of healing, but it’s more than saying I’m sorry.  Without understanding the depth of the injury; the loss of trust, the embarrassment and the anger, an apology can feel meaningless.

When the injured is heard he or she can feel validated by the partner because the partner really gets the pain he or she caused.  At that time the injured person may want to try and understand what led the partner to tell the lie in the first place.  They may discover that the partner was trying to protect them, only the lie turned out to be a clumsy attempt.

What can develop is true communication, connection between the couple.  Lies are an indication that there’s room for improvement.  In most cases when there is a lie people react by turning away from their partner.  It’s natural to protect yourself when hurt.  But turning toward your partner with understanding and compassion could just bring you exactly what you are after… real closeness and truth.

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