Friday, May 15, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Managing Conflict

Anytime people come together, there are differences of opinion, values, needs and desires. Finding a method to resolve those differences has been a major challenge for every civilization and organization. Personal relationships present the same kinds of challenges. It's difficult to share your life with someone else, and manage disagreements in a way that leaves both of you feeling positive about the relationship.

I came from a family where my mother had a very passive-aggressive style and tended to become emotional during any kind conflict. I've found that that style is not very productive, and I've learned to use a more rational, goal-focus style instead. Yet, we humans are emotional beings, and sometimes it's hard to control the way we express our feelings.
Recognize that if you're in a highly emotional state, you will transmit that state as you communicate. It's nearly inevitable. We all easily pick up on the emotions of those near us. If you're angry and you start expressing that, people near you will probably start feeling angry too.

Here are a few tips that I've learned over the years for handling conflict in a way that promotes a positive outcome.

1. Be aware of the topics that are hot buttons for conflict in your relationship. Some of the typical problems for romantically-involved couples include money, sex, in-laws or other relatives, raising children, and division of household work. Remind yourself that before you begin talking about any of these issues, you will need some extra planning time to make sure the discussion goes smoothly.

2. Before you start the conversation, think about what kind of resolution you want. Say it to yourself in words. It may be something like, "I want her to acknowledge that this is a difficult situation for me, and I am making a sacrifice", or "I want us to divide up the chores so that I don't have to do so much right after I get home from work". Don't start a discussion until you know what you want and have a goal clearly in mind. If I just need blow off some steam, I find it helpful to preface my complaints by saying, "I just need to vent about some things that are going on. I don't expect you to solve these problems. I am just looking for a little empathy"
if indeed that is all I want.

3. Think about how to get what you want with a win-win arrangement. What can you give in exchange for what you want? Sometimes it is as simple as giving praise and gratitude.

4. Warn your partner if you're about to bring up an emotional topic. Say something like, "I want us to discuss this, but I'm worried that you might feel defensive" or "I just want you to understand how I'm feeling about this." You're essentially telling your partner that she/he might need to exercise some emotional restraint during the discussion. Your warning will help your partner tune into your feelings, and make it far less likely that the conversation will deteriorate into a fight.

5. Stop after every statement you make and allow your partner time to respond. Listen carefully and repeat back what you hear him or her saying in your own words. This is where good listening skills become very important. A lot of conflict arises simply because we feel we are not being heard, and we often begin to repeat the same message more and more loudly in an effort just to be understood. Showing that are listening and understanding stops this pattern and keeps the discussion productive. Ask that your partner listen to you too. If you feel like you're not being heard, stop and say, "Can you tell me in your own words what you think I'm saying." Often you'll find your partner is reading more into your meaning than you really intend, and has been reacting to that inference rather than what you actually said.

6. Make requests rather than statements. "I think you should help out more with the laundry" is not a request. "Could you please help out more with the laundry?" is a request. Use your best manners with the people you love. This is the place in your life where being polite pays off the most. When you make a request, say why it's important to you or how it will help you out. Also mention if it will improve the relationship, like "I will feel less stressed if you help out with this chore, and I will then have time to relax with you after dinner." Your partner is most motivated to help you when he or she also benefits directly.

7. Become more self-aware of your own emotions and how they affect the relationship dynamic. Pause between the point where you feel the rush of emotion and the point you begin to communicate, and consider how your message will be heard and received. Then ask yourself what kind of response you are likely to get based on your past experiences.

8. Express your feelings without assigning blame. Rather than saying, "You have no right to talk to your mother about me that way", say "I feel angry and hurt when you tell your mother about our problems even though you haven't talked to me first so that we can work out a solution."

9. Create rules to clarify your agreements and prevent further conflict. Ideally, rules provide both freedom and limits. Regarding money, my husband and I have a joint bank account. We generally agree that we can each spend up to a couple of hundred dollars a month on personal purchases without consulting each other. If one of us wants to make a purchase for more than that, we discuss it in advance. If one of us wants to buy an item for the household, or for our mutual use, we discuss it first. I know some couples that maintain separate bank accounts. They have agreements about what bills get paid out of each account. The point is to find rules that you and your partner both feel good about and that will reduce future problems.

10. Don't avoid conflict, but manage it. The problem with not speaking up when you disagree is that over time, you become increasing annoyed and resentful. It's called passive-aggressive behavior because you remain passively angry until you can't take it anymore and then you explode. Resolve that you will talk to your partner about the things that bother you when you first notice them. If you're worried about being confrontational, approach it this way--first, ask probing questions to find out how your partner is feeling about the matter. This will get the conversation going, and give you something to respond to. Focus on giving responses that both allow you to reveal your feelings, and that address the points your partner is bringing up.

11. Look for hidden rewards in your conflict patterns. Some couples fall into a mode of conflict that has positive consequences for one or both of them, and this motivates them to keep the conflict going. This can happen if one person consistently wins the fights and other concedes or apologizes. Then the reward of gaining a sense of power can keep the fights going, but it also creates an undercurrent of resentment, and causes the relationship to deteriorate. Make-up sex is also a reward that can encourage regular conflict. If you have these kinds of rewards built into your relationship, change what you do after a fight. Make it a point to celebrate every day or week of peace and harmony that you create for yourselves.

Are there other conflict managements strategies that work for you? What are the disagreements that you have the hardest time handling in your relationships?


  1. Wow thanks this was wonderful advice.

  2. Nice post.
    Will have to re-read it in detail.
    I read that only 20% of the emotions are picked up by the brain is due to the words.
    The rest 80% are picked up by the subconscious mind(body language etc)

    This is why sometimes we feel that something is wrong in the person even though he's talking sweet.

    I always try not to get angry.Whenver I'm angry, I totally switch off from the surroundings.I inform the other person that I'm angry and wish not to talk at the current moment and stay quite till I have my @#$% together.This has worked for me so far.

  3. I took have been back several times; this is my fourth read! Thank you so very much for your article, your experience! Dixie

  4. This is really so, so right. One of the many benefits of getting older with the same person, spending years together, is that I've figured out so much of this through trial & error, and he stays anyway. LOL! I always thought I would grow up & just magically know all this stuff. Not even close! I just have learned from experience. One of the most important things I've learned is knowing when to just not say anything at all.

    :) Debi

  5. Great advise Clarissa!

    Unfortunately, many of us do not learn conflict resolution in a healthy way. We learn from the example set by our parents and others who themselves may not have learned healthy ways of dealing with the stresses of life. This is where the generational impact of our family history can be the most destructive.

    I know I was not always the best role model for my children but have worked with them to understand that I did not have the best examples set for me growing up in a dysfunctional family.

    I would recommend anyone who has older children to print these points for them to read. I am giving a copy to each of my boys and their wives.

    Thank you for sharing this!


  6. Morrow & Dixie: Thanks for the encouraging words. I appreciate and am touched by your gratitude.

    Despo: I agree that body language is revealing. I find that I can’t hide anything at all from my husband. He’ll walk in, take one look at me, furrow his brow and ask, “What’s wrong?”. He also then insists on talking about problems right away, so I can’t do the leave-me-alone-until-I-feel-like-talking bit. Like you mention, having time to compose oneself can be a good thing if it helps you express yourself better.

    Debi: I feel that way too. Life is one long learning experience, and I’m grateful for all those who have continued to love me even through my mistakes and imperfect attempts--especially my husband, who gets to see it all, up close & personal.

    Roger: So you taught your children that parents are not perfect and it’s okay to be imperfect, but we can all still work to improve ourselves for the sake of each other. Sounds like you shared some very valuable lessons there.


  7. Great tips, Clarissa! And your image of "locked horns" is just perfect to illustrate the stalemate that occurs when the same conflicts repeat themselves.