5 Tips for Working Through Relationship Conflict

Working through relationship conflict doesn’t have to mean “fighting.” Here’s a better approach for those with divorce or co-parenting problems to solve.

working through relationship conflict

Is there really a way to "fight fair"? Probably not, because fighting by definition involves aggression and a need to overpower an opponent where the goal is to beat the adversary and win. Instead, whether yours is a relationship that still has hope or a situation where separation or divorce is imminent, there is a series of guidelines that can turn a disagreement into a win-win situation instead of a win-lose outcome. Because, the truth is, no matter what stage a relationship is at, whether there is a willingness to continue in the relationship or knowing it is over, the principles for achieving the best result are the same when working through issues.  This article outlines guidelines for each party to respect when working through disagreements that offer the best possibility of a positive outcome mutually acceptable by both parties. As a relationship and divorce coach, I always refer to experts who have studied issues in depth. One professional who has studied overcoming differences in couples is Anthony Chambers, Ph.D., who has served as the Chief Academic Officer and Director for the Family Institute at Northwestern University’s Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies. Chambers has studied and written extensively on the best ways to work through relationship conflict; below I'm going to apply some of his advice to divorcing couples and co-parents.

Working Through Relationship Conflict

1. Avoid criticizing the person. Don’t attack. Speak about the behavior you’ve experienced and how that made you feel.  An important point here is to be specific and discuss problems individually rather than looking at blanket disagreements. Stay on point. For example: "When you're late picking up the kids, I feel like to don't think my time is important." 2. If the other party attacks, find ways to be curious instead of defensive about why you are being attacked. Diffuse the situation by asking questions in order to get at the root of the other person's anger. 3. Work hard to keep discussing a disagreement rather than walking away or shutting down in frustration. Be honest, listen, and encourage the other party to do the same. If your discussion in taking a nasty turn, it is okay to agree on a timeout in order to avoid escalating tension for the moment.  Before leaving the room, decide when you will talk again: whether it is in 15 minutes, after several hours, or set another date and time. 4. Pick the right time to bring up an issue. The best time is when both parties are calm enough to talk and be reasonable, when they are alone, and when they are in a good emotional state.  A few examples of times not to bring up sensitive issues are when one or both parties have been drinking, are in an altered state, or when one or both parties are tired. It may be difficult, but keep your disagreements and discussions private: don't pick a fight when you're out in public or when you're with friends, family, or colleagues. No one is comfortable being be a party to your disagreement or being forced to take sides, and nothing positive can come of airing your dirty laundry in front of others. 5. Take responsibility for your part in the problem and don’t lay all the blame at the other party's door.  It takes two to tango, so look for your own responsibility for what happened. Make a mutual agreement to respect the other party, refrain from name-calling, and really listen to the other's person's point of view as though you are a disinterested third party with no stake in the solution. Respectful and open communication allows both parties to feel heard – and that can go a long way towards reaching a compromise that works for everyone.

Anger and Problem-Solving Cannot Co-Exist

There is a need for honesty when it comes to working through differences, but honesty needs to be shared in a calm, open environment.  Expressing personal feelings is important, but can only be shared and heard when anger doesn’t flare up. Anger and problem-solving cannot co-exist.  There will be no winners when a power struggle is the core problem. Decide if a significant reason arguments begin is that there is a power struggle.  This often happens when two strong, even determined personalities are involved and have developed a pattern of taking no prisoners.   When “winning” the battle is more important than coming to a solution or resolution, honest and open communication cannot take place. There are couples who believe a "good fight" lets them vent and get over pent-up emotions, but in the end, the couple must ask, "Has anything really been solved that needs solving?” Differences in any relationship can be challenging and in divorce, differences can be much more profound.  Yet, no matter what type of relationship exists, additional input by an objective party might be a good course of action if a couple cannot make progress on their own. A counselor, a mediator, a divorce coach or a pastor can serve as a buffer and can provide objective, eye-opening insights that the couple alone cannot see. It is important to remember that most relationships experience disagreements and arguments. There is nothing wrong or abnormal about them.  Yet, in the end, the goal is always to come out with both parties satisfied where no one has won and no one has lost.

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