David and I had been married nearly two years before we had our first argument. That might sound impressive but really it was quite the opposite. My problem was that I struggled to express negative emotions and I feared arguments whilst David walked on eggshells trying not to upset me. It wasn’t a healthy state of affairs.
Whether it comes a day, a month or a year into any relationship – the first argument can be unsettling. I can’t even remember what ours was about but I do know it was something very trivial regarding D.I.Y and I do recall David looking a bit surprised as I shouted at him whilst running crying down the stairs.
What I soon realised was that conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If we deal with our disagreements in a healthy way they can actually help to deepen our relationship.
The reality is that every relationship will experience some degree of conflict. Why? Firstly, because most of us are selfish: we struggle when we don’t get our own way. Secondly, because we misunderstand each other and make wrong assumptions about what the other person has said or done (or not said or not done). And finally because we are all different and these different experiences, opinions, ways of doing things and expectations can easily become a source of tension between us.
So, how can we deal with our disagreements in a way that will help strengthen our relationships rather than damage them?
Here are a few suggestions that have helped me in my relationships:
1. Pick your moment. Choose a time when neither of you is too hungry, tired, ill, hormonal, distracted or under pressure. If you feel very angry or upset – calm down first before having the discussion. If necessary count to a 100 or go for a long walk around the block
If you don’t want to antagonise or humiliate the other person don’t bring up the issue in front of friends, family or at a special event.
2. Say what you really mean. When we feel hurt, angry, or misunderstood it is important to be able to explain why as clearly as possible. We can’t expect the other person to mind read or decipher our hints and it isn’t fair to just explode at them in a torrent of emotional abuse.
For many of us saying that we are upset isn’t easy - it makes us feel vulnerable. But, if we want our relationships to grow and to deepen we need to allow the other person to understand what is going on inside of us. The only way that is going to happen is by taking a risk and expressing our thoughts and feelings.
3. Really listen to the other person’s point of view. We also need to try our best to understand the other person. That will involve listening without interrupting or problem solving, giving advice or defending ourselves. It will mean listening with all our attention and checking with the other person to make sure that we have heard and understood them correctly.
4. Apologise and forgive when necessary. During the discussion one (or both) of you may need to say ‘sorry’. It can be difficult to admit we are wrong or that we’ve hurt someone. But we need to take responsibility for our part in the problem and choose to say ‘sorry’. And if the other person apologises – it helps to be able to forgive them. Forgiving means letting go and not holding the offence against them.
5. Look for an ‘us’ solution. It helps if you can see the issue as a joint problem to solve. How can we sort this out? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? How can we improve the situation? Think through possible solutions together until you find one that you can both agree to.
I’ve discovered in my relationship with David that if we want to have constructive discussions about any conflict between us we need to make sure that we have the right conversation, at the right time, in the right place and with the right person. When things go wrong it is normally because one of those things isn’t happening.