The oft-repeated advice “never go to bed angry,” gets under my skin. The idea that a conflict with your spouse should be wrapped up all tidy and neat with a bow by the end of the evening seems…well, ridiculous to me. More than that, I think it plays into this notion that marriage should, ideally, be free from conflict. As a couples therapist, I’m here to tell you that conflict is a necessary and healthy thing for your relationship. And that its absence is almost always a bigger red flag than its presence.
There’s no such thing as a conflict-free marriage. But it’s easy to pour your energy into the sieve of trying to avoid disagreements. Instead of wasting your effort on trying not to fight, it’s much more helpful to build a space where conflict is healthy and safe. Where you can disagree and not feel that your entire relationship is on the line. So how do you do this? Check out my suggestions below.
Think Before You Speak
As I’ve written before, one of the key strategies to effectively dealing with conflict in a relationship is to start by trying to understand your partner’s perspective. Ask yourself these questions: What is the view like from their side of the problem? Why might an issue matter more to you than them (or vice versa)? What other concerns could they have related to the problem or a potential solution? Spend some time thinking about why they might have a different viewpoint, and consider the possibility that maybe an issue has not been on their radar to begin with. We often expect that our partner will be weighing the problem the same way as us, but given that we are each our own special snowflake selves, often this won’t be the case. Try to avoid punishing your partner because they have a different perspective, and make an honest attempt at understanding the view from their side.
Don’t Fear the Fight: Speak Up
A colleague once said to me: if you are having a conflict with someone, your relationship has already been altered, whether you say something or not. In other words, regardless of whether you speak up, the connection between the two of you has already been changed by the presence of conflict. If I’m secretly stewing over something my husband has done, mostly likely I’m demonstrating these behaviors in subtle (and maybe not so subtle) ways, such as turning my cheek when he tries to kiss me, or hanging out in another part of the house so I don’t have to sit with him, or answering all his questions with “fine.” We may think that we’re sparing ourselves or our partners a difficult conversation, but avoiding open conflict usually means that your feelings leak out in other behaviors. Ultimately, unless the issue is something you can actually let go, then you’re better off directly speaking to your partner about it.
Set the Stage: Be Thoughtful about Your Approach
The more difficult an issue is, the more considerate you want to be about how and when and even where you bring it up to your partner. If you believe the conversation could be tough, don’t just spring it on your spouse the moment they walk in the door (or worse, text or call them during work). Choose your timing and your wording carefully. This is not a license to allow disagreements to go unaddressed or be put off indefinitely, but you have a much better chance of having a calm and productive conversation when you’re both able to give an issue your full focus, and are not overly stressed or tired.
Ideally, you would begin by checking in and seeing if they were up to having the conversation, and if they can’t right then, decide when would be a good time to be to talk.
The Problem is the Problem, Not Your Partner
Once you start to have the conversation, it’s important to focus on sharing how the problem impacts you, instead of focusing on proving yourself right. Talk about why the issue matters to you, and what you would like to do to solve it. Don’t assume that whatever answer you’ve come up with is the only right answer. If this is a genuine conversation, then you should be open to their input or suggestions as well. Keep in mind, you may have been thinking about a particular problem for days or weeks or even longer, but your partner may not have had the opportunity to give it as much thought. Essentially, the dialogue in your mind is mid-stream, while your partner is still at the dock. Give them the opportunity to talk and think it through. There’s typically not one way to solve a problem—focus on finding a solution you both can live with.
Sometimes we feel that conflict is the enemy, and that a good marriage will have very few or no disagreements. In reality, it’s not the number of disagreements that define whether a relationship is healthy or unhealthy, but how the couple deals with them. Create a healthy space for conflict, and you’ll likely see the intensity and duration of your arguments decrease.