Conflicts are an inevitable part of every relationship. In fact, research has shown that 70% of the conflicts couples face are unsolvable. So what separates healthy, happy relationships from those filled with grudges and resentment? A big part of having a good, long-lasting relationship isn’t about avoiding fights but rather learning how to fight. Managing conflict in a constructive way could actually lead to growth and strengthen your bond. Here are a few science-backed strategies you can start implementing right away.
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Recognize you’re flooded
Racing heart? Flushed cheeks? Muscle tension? Shallow breathing? Repeating thoughts? Raised voice? A pit in your stomach? If any of those show up for you when you’re having an argument, you are probably flooded. Flooding isn’t something we control. It’s a physical state that is triggered when we sense danger – even emotional danger. When we are flooded, the Amygdala takes control of the mind. This ancient part of our brain is great for fighting a lion or running away from a stampede but not so great for having gentle conversations with someone we love about a hot-button issue.
We can’t control getting flooded, but we can control our reaction to flooding. If we recognize this is what’s happening, we can help ourselves step out of this state and make sure we aren’t doing any harm while we’re there. There’s no point in engaging in conversation when our bodies are in emergency mode. That’s why it’s crucial to learn how to recognize our personal flooding signs and have an agreed-upon time-out protocol in place.
Plan your time outs
Time outs are critical to make sure we do no emotional harm in the heat of the moment. Research has shown that a time-out should last for at least 30 minutes. Done right — it can bring us back to a place of clarity, from which we can have a difficult conversation and come out stronger. To take a proper time out, choose a time when you are both calm and make a plan together: agree on a word or a phrase that signals a time out, and make sure you both understand taking a time out doesn’t mean one of you is abandoning ship, and that you’ll get back to discussing when you are ready.
When the moment comes and you feel flooded, ask for a time out, and indicate when approximately you’ll be ready to rejoin the conversation (in 30 minutes? Two hours? Tomorrow? It’s legitimate, just don’t leave your partner in the dark about it). Then, leave the room without slamming the door, or saying something mean. When you are alone, deliberately think of something else, don’t ruminate on what just happened and how right you are 🙂 Drink water, breathe deeply, and engage in mild physical activity. These have all been scientifically proven to shift your mindset back into modern thinking mechanisms and help you gain clarity and proportion.
Learn about your conflict style (and your partner’s)
Often people find themselves in relationships with people who are their very opposites when it comes to conflict style. When you are faced with conflict, do you tend to clamp up and avoid the conversation? Are you overwhelmed with big emotions and trying to distance yourself from them to protect yourself? Or maybe, you’re on the other side of the scale and think the best way to handle differences is to face them head-on, honestly and loudly?
We often make things worse by interpreting our partners’ conflict styles as an offense against us when in reality, it has nothing to do with us, it’s just how they react in difficult moments. When we understand our partners’ interpretations aren’t about us, it’s easier to navigate the conversation and accommodate both your needs (of course, this does not mean any behavior is acceptable. Violence is never ok and should not be tolerated).
When you are calm and not in an active argument, go back to a fight you had and map out your conflict style based on your reactions and emotions. Then, try and do the same for your partner. Can you see where they are coming from?
Get professional support
Changing life-long habits isn’t easy, even with all the strategies in the world. Changing our emotional scenery can get scary, and when times get rough, we tend to go back to what we know — even when we know it’s wrong. One of the best things you can do for your relationship is contact a professional to support you through your process, offer tailored guidance and exercises, and be there for you as you learn to walk a new path.
These days with modern technology, it doesn’t have to be expensive or logistically complicated. If traditional therapy feels like too much, you can find an online alternative to make things easier and more suitable to modern life, without settling on results. Ritual is an online service that combines private sessions with a dedicated professional, and an app packed with personalized content you can access 24/7. You can take sessions from your car or couch (or anywhere in the world), availability is high, and the cost is about a quarter of traditional therapy. You can even join without your partner if they are not ready yet. Start by filling out a simple assessment to help determine if you’re eligible.
Remove the word “but” from your vocabulary
This tiny agent of chaos has the power to negate perfectly good apologies, seal ears, and create a zero-sum game situation among loving couples. And the crazy thing is, it’s not even necessary in most sentences. Usually, if you substitute “but” for “and,” the meaning doesn’t even change.
Instead of sending the message that you’re contradicting or dismissing the value of what you just heard, you are acknowledging its importance and adding your own perspective. This is healthy on a micro level and also reflects a deeper attitude shift in your relationship. You have the chance to convey that you and your partner both have valuable perspectives. Theirs and yours, not yours instead of theirs. Almost any “but” can be switched with an “and” or something similar like “I would also like to add that” or “at the same time.” Even simply adding a comma can work.
Your partner suggests going back to school for another degree?” Instead of “Yes, but that would cost so much money and finances are tight right now,” try “Yes, I see how that would further your career and add to your future earning potential. And I have concerns about balancing our budget while you’re in school.”
Knowing how to fight is a game-changer for most relationships, it improves your chances of staying together and reduces stress, so frankly — what could be worth more? There are many strategies to help you turn your fights into constructive moments, and yet it’s usually not that easy to simply change our reactions to feeling in danger. That’s why it’s better to get professional, results-driven help that fits your lifestyle and budget. When you get support, the results speak for themselves.