It’s easy to get along when you are both on the same page, but what happens when you’re not? When you and your partner have different wants, needs, or expectations, do you still feel supported and loved or do you feel like you’ve entered a battle ground requiring you to slap on all your armor and pull out all your weapons?
In the heat of the moment, it may feel like a riptide is pulling you into a maelstrom full of negative emotions. As the adrenaline surges, many go on the attack or become defensive. But the blame game never defuses the situation, and if neither party retreats in time, you will both say and do things you most likely will deeply regret later. Unfortunately, an apology afterwards will not always suffice to repair the damage caused during these episodes.
Most people are either wired or trained (maybe both) to advocate for their own wants and needs, also known as positional bargaining, so when their partner has a different agenda, the default is to try and win them over by convincing them to change their position rather than to try and understand the underlying motivation and/or find a compromise. Another huge hurdle to overcome is this belief that if you apologize you are admitting you did something wrong, when instead it could just be seen as a gentle acknowledgment that someone’s feelings were unintentionally hurt.
It took me a while to learn that walking away from an argument was not a sign of weakness, but actually a strength. Knowing when to bite your tongue is a virtue, and allowing time for calmer heads to prevail is the smarter move in the long run. With some distance, you can often look back and clearly see what went wrong. Miscommunications happen all the time, and in a healthy relationship the focus is on gaining greater understanding to avoid stepping on each other’s landmines in the future.
Ultimately, at the core of every conflict is the fact that someone feels slighted. Rather than try to change someone’s perspective of the situation, why not work with it? Lean into the problem and express curiosity– especially if this is someone you truly care about. To give someone a safe space to express their feelings while demonstrating empathy is the ultimate expression of love and kindness. If you need a visual, try this one: imagine a child that just fell from a ledge and scrapped his knee. Do you really want to spend time scolding the child for being unsafe or focus on cleaning the wound and calmly reviewing ways to prevent another mishap in the future?
We all have a vulnerable inner child craving reassurance, particularly in times of distress. If instead someone tries to make you feel like you are nuts or there is something wrong with you for feeling a certain way, then the issue is actually with them and their inability to provide validation in a time of need. Common tactics used during arguments that will destroy your trust include the following: (1) If your partner tells you that you’re “wrong” for feeling a certain way, that shows a complete lack of empathy. (2) When they call you names, that shows total disrespect. (3) If they attack or threaten you (not necessarily in a physical way) that indicates a complete disregard for your safety. (4) If they flat-out shut down your request to talk (not just a quick time-out) that is quite simply an unequivocal rejection.
Learning to fight fair is an important skill to have in all areas of life, but particularly with your loved ones. It’s okay to not always be in sync, but it is unacceptable to engage in war tactics that undermine the relationship. Sometimes, professional help is needed to learn a new way of coping with conflict. Other times, you just have to accept that a person may be unwilling or unable to change and you need to walk away for your own safety and sanity.
Long lasting relationships that are happy and healthy are not free of conflict, but rather they embrace those moments as opportunities to learn more about each other and grow closer by working together to meet each other’s needs. Particularly during difficult times, the ability to validate each other cannot be stressed enough. It’s the glue that will get you through the darkest of times and back on track to the best ones that still await.
By Regina A. DeMeo