Conflict resolution strategies for romantic relationships
May 25, 2010 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Tips for conflict resolution in a romantic relationship?

This question from 2005 describes my situation so perfectly that I easily could have written it myself. I was wondering if anyone could add to the advice that was given back then. Thank you very much.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This usually arises in a situation where A is mad/crabby/upset by something that B did. B notices crabbiness. B asks A "Is something wrong?" or "Are you ok?"

NEW RULE: A is not allowed to say "I'm fine." Not ever. The only acceptable responses are "I'm upset but don't want to talk about it," or "I am upset because of X"

The second answer is preferable. And X can be anything. "You don't value my opinions." "You drink too much." "You ate the last piece of string cheese and I wanted the last piece of string cheese."

The beauty is that, however petty X is, you can deal with X, or at least acknowledge it. You can't deal with "I'M FINE STOP ASKING" very well at all.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:43 AM on May 25, 2010 [15 favorites]

Seconding not saying "I'm fine." when you're not. When you really are doing fine, your partner will doubt it; every other time you say you're fine, there's actually something wrong. It might go like this:

"What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I just said I was fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! I'm fine!"
"Well, you don't seem fine."
"Well, I was fine until you told me I wasn't! Gosh!"
(argument ensues.)

Not that I would know from personal experience or anything.
posted by too bad you're not me at 9:09 AM on May 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've been on the receiving end of "I'm fine" answers (and I've given them, too), and it seems to imply "I don't think it's worth talking about this" - sometimes because the "fine" party realizes the issue is dumb, but is still pissed off, and thinks the other party might scoff at the pettiness of the original offense. Or, it could be a habitual issue, which the "fine" party is trying to accept, and talking about it would only bring more focus on something they're trying to ignore. Or, attempts at mental communication have failed, and the hints and thoughts sent to the other party have been missed, to the annoyance of the "fine" party.

In either case, I agree with craven_morhead - the "fine" party should just say what's annoying them, and it can be addressed quickly ("sorry I took the last string cheese, I'll ask next time we're down to the last one") or start working on a long-term solution ("tailgating is my way of telling others they should move faster, but I realize it's a dangerous way of conveying my need for speed, so to speak - I'll try to not do this, and you can tell me when you feel I'm getting to close to other cars"). Or, communication can start, and the language of hints can be clarified for both sides.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:19 AM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Party A, the "I'm Fine" party, can learn to articulate a little more and get specific about what is bothering him or her AND about the desired outcome. "I'm upset that the dishes didn't get done when it was your turn and now they're all gross." Desired outcome: do the dishes, and remember next time!

Or, "I'm not fine. My boss was being a snotwad again at work for the third time. I really can't look for another job right now. I know there is nothing you can do about it, can you just be a listening ear for me and not try to fix anything?" Desired outcome: Partner listens and makes sympathetic tut-tutting noises and is supportive. S/he isn't responsible for fixing the problem.

Some people pull out the "I said I'M FINE, DAMMIT!" gambit to punish their partners (you don't want to be this person) or because they are ashamed to admit what is bothering them (you shouldn't be this person) or because they have a problem that really can't be dealt with, like a bad work situation or a parent with cancer or what have you. In this case, some partners are such "fixers" that the minute you tell them, "I'm upset because my dad has just been diagnosed with cancer" the partner jumps in to DO!SOMETHING!NOW! Call here, Google there, run out and buy homeopathic whoozeewazzits, etc. Often, what people with problems want is simply a listening ear and a "There, there. That stinks, honey. You know I have your back."
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:33 AM on May 25, 2010

n'thing the outlawing of "fine".

My husband and I went through a bit of "fine" problems at the beginning of our relationship. We then spent a few months very awkwardly being very honest about everything and trying to find the REAL source of problems, e.g. putting an empty milk carton back in the fridge isn't really the problem, but you assuming that I'll take care of this sort of thing for you IS.
Also, while acknowledging feelings is critical, letting them rule you is a no-no - when you talk about things, you both have to be relatively calm and listening to each other.
It made for a rough few months, but the end result is that we're coming up on almost ten really solidly happy years. No big issues come up because we're worked them out, and most little problems are solidly related to the bigger problems they spring from, so when I complain about the dishes not being done, he knows that I'm kind of feeling irked and taken for granted because I feel he's leaving them for me to do... yadda yadda... the point is that we both understand each other now, so I'm not going to get upset because I know he understands why it REALLY bugs me and acts accordingly, and vice versa for all the things I do that irritate HIM.

Don't deny your feelings
Don't allow your feelings to rule the conversation
Be honest but accommodating
Don't hold grudges after talking it out - let go of anger as soon as possible
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:34 AM on May 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yep, X can totally be "I'm really crabby and I shouldn't be; I'm going to chill out for a little bit and hopefully be a normal person in about an hour. Bear with me."
posted by craven_morhead at 9:45 AM on May 25, 2010

I read about a study this guy did awhile back. Basically it indicated that if a couple shows signs of affection, even during an argument, that they would be unlikely to divorce. I realize you're not even close to getting married yet, but it can't hurt to review some of his findings.

You may have read other advice touting Deborah Tannen. Definitely give her books a look.

Remember that it's important that both of you are working on defining a shared communication style. If only one of you is using a particular technique, it will never work. I've made this mistake in the past, and it sucks to be "playing fair" during an argument and feel like you've been thrown under the bus when the other guy doesn't.
posted by wwartorff at 10:26 AM on May 25, 2010

Ha! That was me asking that question (and I'm still with the bf under discussion). My big epiphany came when he and I were having some sort of stupid-little-conflict-escalating-for-no-good-reason and he just grabbed my hand and said, "sweetie, I'm on your side." That... kind of changed everything. I suddenly got that conflict was not about winning and losing; it didn't mean you were in trouble; it just meant that you had to work through something together. Mindblowing.

What also helped a lot was reading this book (my long explanation/caveats about it here). Among other things, it helped me rewire my tendency to pout because I could finally see my behavior in terms of its effectiveness regarding my desired outcome -- basically, I reasoned with myself: does pouting get me what I want? NO. Okay, then if I really want what I want, I had better try something else. So the incentive to figure out a solution was even more concrete and personal beyond just "I don't want to screw up this relationship."

Here's a few other conflict tips/techniques we've come up with over the years.

Good luck! It's pretty liberating to leave old habits like this behind.
posted by scody at 12:19 PM on May 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

PREP is a research-based proven skill set designed to address conflict in relationships. It has the rules you seek and some skills that will help you communicate in a way that will keep you from violating any of the rules, allwoing each of you to be heard and understood. Very much worth buying the book or attending a class.
posted by cross_impact at 2:06 PM on May 25, 2010

whoops that url for PREP is
posted by cross_impact at 2:06 PM on May 25, 2010

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