How to learn healthy conflict resolution skills in a relationship?
October 5, 2005 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by this question, I'd like some tips, resources, books, etc. for learning how to deal with conflict/disagreement within a new relationship in a healthy way.

The new boyfriend and I are about four months along now, so we're entering that stage where small conflicts and disagreements are naturally starting to arise (nothing serious, just the usual past-the-first-googly-eyed-phase stuff). Problem is, I grew up in a household that pathologically suppressed any normal, open expression of disagreement, anger, etc. -- meaning that conflict only presented itself either as wordless, simmering resentment (often with a side of passive-aggressiveness) or once-in-a-blue-moon terrifyingly explosive fights. As a result, I never really learned how to deal with conflict without defaulting to either terrified acquiescence or outraged defensiveness.

I've tended to be in relationships with partners who have been raised under similar circumstances, so that the cycle has largely continued. My current fella, however, is much more in the camp of "confront things directly, have out the argument, deal with it, move on" school of thought, which is of course a fine idea in theory but is pretty much Greek to me in practice. (Correspondingly, the few conflicts we've had have pretty much resulted in my binary of acquiescence/defensiveness, which he obviously finds pretty weird to deal with.) I really want to keep from undermining what is otherwise a lovely, burgeoning relationship due to my emotional idiocy in this arena.
posted by scody to Human Relations (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
it's a pretty tough question. I don't think that there's anything particularly wrong in not being able/willing to go the "confront things directly, have out the argument, deal with it, move on" way -- emotions can sometimes be too complex for that. but yes, it is very wrong to let everything simmer or simply cave in when you don't really feel in your heart that it's the right thing to do, only to keep il quieto vivere
the "confront things directly, have out the argument, deal with it, move on" is more of a -- excuse me the inevitable generalization -- of a guy's way to do things. we girls (heh) sometimes need a little more nuance.

an intelligent compromise seems to be the way to go -- try to be more like him in that you can try to make yourself be heard when you don't think things are OK. and ask him to listen a bit more -- when you'll know each other better you'll figure out things more quickly -- learning to interpret the partner's little signals of distress.
also, promising each other to be more open (you) and listen more (him) seems to be a good idea
posted by matteo at 2:38 PM on October 5, 2005

and by the way, he's so lucky to have you that a little more work on his part re: figuring out the various layers of your "acquiescence/defensiveness" seems a pretty good bargain. you have the chance to open uop and he has the chance to learm to listen more, and to be more understanding of complex, interesting traits that are peculiar to his partner

it'll serve him well in his future relationships, too -- he may have to thank you in retrospect


posted by matteo at 2:43 PM on October 5, 2005

IMO, you guys need to establish a shared vocabulary for this kind of situation, so you'll be ready for it when the moment comes up. So, talk to him and tell him that conflict is scary and unfamiliar to you, but that you're interested in learning how have conflicts. Because you're new to it, you'll need a bit of help getting over some of your anxieties, at least in the beginning.

Get familiar with that feeling inside you that occurs just prior to your acquiescence/defensiveness response. Let bf know that there are going to be times when you're going to do a kind of time-out, when the issue being discussed/argued has to be put on the back burner for a moment. Then when you start to have *that* feeling, say to bf, "remember how I told you I might need a time-out during a conflict? This is one of those times." You all will get back to the issue that started the conflict, but right this minute, you're having an uncomfortable feeling, and you need to have a bit of a process break.

During this break, do what you need to do to calm yourself (breath, take a walk, joke around, switch the topic, whatever). When you feel able, start talking about the reaction you're having, preferably including lots of "I" statements - like, "When you said X, I felt like you were going to insist on going to see Serenity, whether I wanted to or not" (or whatever).

During these conversations, it *really* helps if there's an agreement that we're not going to solve the issue at hand right now, and there's no need for anyone to get defensive or accusatory. Indeed, if that comes up, you can have it be part of the conversation - "I'm feeling like I need to defend myself right now..." Do make a committment to come back to the issue at hand at some time in the future, and do keep that committment.

As someone who has been conflict-phobic myself, I can say that it really brings a relationship closer when you can have a conflict and see it all the way through.
posted by jasper411 at 3:02 PM on October 5, 2005

I hate conflict and have the hardest time being a "grown up" when it comes to addressing issues head on. The only self help book I've ever read on this topic - or any other for that matter - was called The Dance of Anger. It's much less cheesy than the title suggests. It addresses exactly these issues specifically from a woman's perspective.
posted by Wolfie at 3:11 PM on October 5, 2005

Fighting for Your Marriage is exactly, precisely what you need -- expert, research-based techniques for resolving conflict constructively, written by the co-director (with John Gottman) of the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies. Run out and get it.
posted by futility closet at 6:22 PM on October 5, 2005

Something I've found very helpful in dealing with conflict like this is to remember to keep your discussion in terms of yourself and your feelings. i.e.

Bad: "Why do you always have to roll over and go to sleep after sex? Don't you care about me at all?"
Good: "When we dont cuddle after we make love it makes me feel like I'm not really appreciated"

That way, it can be up to the person you're talking to to either respond, decide to change the behavior, offer an explanation or none of the above.

An accusatory tone or statement will almost certainly be responded to with defensiveness which doesn't actually resolve the problem.
posted by softlord at 8:37 PM on October 6, 2005

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