One of the best ways to protect your relationship is to learn how to communicate properly. It’s easy to think that the best way to stay safe is to avoid all disagreements (if you never have an argument, you can never have a fight, right?), but research shows that happiness in relationships really depends more on enhancing intimacy and less on decreasing conflict.
Fights don’t have to be chest-beating, shirt-ripping, marriage-ending brawls. In fact, by identifying common issues and implementing solutions, they can be productive—and even important for your relationship.
Problem No. 1: Harboring contempt
Contempt is shown through hateful criticism and harsh language. Deeply rooted negative thoughts about a partner that aren’t resolved often show themselves during emotional arguments and cause further resentment. Cruel statements that are made during the heat of an argument can erode the trust in a relationship and cause partners to wonder if their partners secretly despise them.
Solution: Let go of negative feelings before they start to fester.
David Klow, LMFT, and founder of Skylight Counseling Center, says that people’s hearts are like kegs of gasoline. Old hurts and resentments are flammable fuel, and one cruelly worded insult can cause everything to blow up. Don’t hit below the belt or use past mistakes against each other.
Carrying hate and disappointment around makes the relationship bloated and heavy. Instead of bottling up minor frustrations, they should be discussed and then released freely. To lighten up an overly serious discussion, try changing tone, using humor, or saying something unexpected.
Problem No. 2: Unfairly criticizing
Many parents teach their children that criticism is a good, constructive thing, and it can be—but only if done properly. Too often, “criticism” devolves into insults and name-calling. Personal, ad hominem-style attacks cause resentment by implying that the partner is the issue.
Solution: Use “I-statements.”
I-statements focus on explaining personal feelings and thoughts, instead of placing the blame on your partner. For example: “You burned our dinner again!” is confrontational and accusatory. A better statement would be, “I’m so disappointed that our dinner is burnt.”
In the end, it’s best to focus on what went right. Sure, humans make mistakes all the time, but there’s always a silver lining. A partner who has spent hours cooking a homemade meal will probably feel hurt and resentful if their partner insults their cooking. And they might even get angry and insult their partner back! But if the partner expresses gratitude and appreciation, they will feel validated because the effort has been acknowledged.
Problem No. 3: Defensiveness
“Often disagreements turn into a fight over who is right and who is wrong,” says Mark Sharp, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Aiki Relationship Institute. “Most disagreements in relationships are more about differences in values or experiences. The job for couples is to learn how they can resolve those differences between themselves.”
Solution: Show physical affection.
Instead of focusing on what went wrong, it’s more important to find a solution. Both partners should give way (at least a little bit) and meet somewhere in the middle. There shouldn’t have to be a winner, and each partner should be willing to admit their mistakes and shortcomings.
Sharp suggests creating a physical connection while having difficult discussions. It helps soothe couples—plus, it’s harder to swear at each other while holding hands. By focusing on the connection being shared, couples can stop worrying about trying to prove who’s better or smarter, and remind themselves of the positive aspects of their relationship.
Problem No. 4: Stonewalling and blocking the conversation
Stonewalling is a toxic behavior that prevents open, warm communication. A partner may physically withdraw by leaving the room or house, refusing to pick up the phone, or ignoring text messages. Or they might emotionally withdraw with a clenched jaw, the cold shoulder, or by pretending their partner doesn’t even exist.
Solution: Decide on a time to discuss the issue together.
Often, stonewalling happens because one party isn’t ready to talk. A better way to communicate this is to reschedule the discussion and give each other time to de-escalate. Both partners should compromise by agreeing on a time to discuss the issue together calmly. Neither should refuse to have a discussion or force the other to talk immediately.
So it might be true that conflict is necessary to deepen a relationship. After all, nothing is more eye-opening than seeing how a person responds to difficult situations. Though it’s tempting to avoid scary fights and hard discussions, approaching them hand-in-hand, practicing effective conflict management techniques, can increase emotional intimacy or help a struggling relationship bloom. It’s never too late to learn these simple skills to improve your relationship.