All relationships have conflicts. While the conflict can be a problem, the bigger problem comes when you try to deal with the conflict in ways that make it worse instead of better.

There are four key things to avoid doing when talking about a conflict in your relationship:

Judgment

Judgment can come from what I call the Tarzan approach to relationship struggles – “Me right – you wrong.” This kind of judgment says that it’s not what you did that was right or wrong, helpful or not helpful, it’s you who is wrong as a person. As soon as a person sends that message, you are no longer equals. There is a person who is one-up and a person who is one-down.

Solution: Be very clear about what the problem is about. Make the problem the issue and not your partner.

Interpretation

This one is also known as “making up stories” about the other person. You make up your own story about what they might be feeling, and/or what something means.

There are many problems with this approach. One is that because you believe the story to be true and accurate, you then respond and behave as if it were true and accurate.

Solution: Check. Ask. It’s that simple. I’ll even give you the words: “I think what you mean by that is . . . Is that right or do you mean something else?”

Defensiveness

Our culture teaches us to blame others, plus some people grow up in families where they are taught to blame others for problems.

When we believe we are being attacked, it is very easy to become defensive. If we believe what is being said is inaccurate, we fight to set the record straight.

Solution: Hear the person out. I realize, and know from experience, that this can be very, very difficult to do. Here’s a tip from stress management expert Tim O’Brien: Quit taking it personally!

Reactivity

We all have our “hot buttons,” the topics or tones of voice to which we are most prone to react. But consider this: Who is in control when we are reacting?

Solution: Respond calmly. The choice is right there – inflame the situation or diffuse the situation. Remember, “a quiet answer turns away wrath.”

Jeff Herring, MS, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist.


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