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Relationships • Conflicts

Three Steps to Resolving Conflicts in Relationships

Our societies spend a lot of time helping us to find partners; but comparatively little time helping us to live peacefully with them once we’ve secured them.

We can perhaps only ever count on six to nine months of natural conflict-free time together with even the most delightful candidates; thereafter, what starts to count is whether a couple have the right conflict resolution techniques in hand; whether they know how to repair after a rupture. 

This is a matter of experience — and a good couple should accept that they probably don’t already have it and so should humbly accept that they need some education. Here is a well-tested set of instructions that can help.

Bad arguments tend to follow the following structure:

1. ANGER

A partner, whom we thought we could trust, does something that hurts us. They steal our phone charger, they don’t get dinner ready in time, they go out to a party without giving us enough warning. And as a result, we get furious.

2. ACCUSATION

We then make an accusation, delivered in the form of an apparently objective negative assessment of who they are: we tell them in no uncertain terms that they are cold, or selfish or mean or disorganised.

3. MUTUAL FURY

Incensed to have been described in such global terms, the accused then gets furious back and delivers an apparently equally objective negative assessment of our natures: we are in fact controlling, bossy, immature or arrogant… Depending on how long we have been together and how many unresolved arguments we have in our emotional knapsacks, both sides may also resort to using ‘always’ and ‘never’: you always do X or Y… You never do X or Y… 

The couple is well on the way to disaster. To pull out of the negative spiral requires discipline and adherence to a basic three stage process:

1. SHARE THE FEAR BEHIND THE ANGER

All arguments come down to fear. They may seem to be about all sorts of things — from what happened to the phone plug to what is being cooked for dinner — but they inevitably come down to the same fear that we are not properly loved and are therefore in danger.

To save the couple, it is essential to exchange the expression of anger for regular clean and brave revelations of the reasons why we are afraid.

We need to stop global accusations (‘You’re a…’) for personal confessions of fear: ‘Your … makes me feel scared and unsafe.’ 

2. EXPLAIN THE CAUSE OF THE FEAR

We then have to explain the reasons for our fear. We need to share a backstory — ideally with reference to something in our childhoods — about why we are especially sensitive over a specific topic: I’m scared of X because — a long time ago — my Y was so Z. Our complaint shifts from sounding judgemental and stifling to poignant and touching.

3. MUTUALLY APOLOGISE FOR THE MADNESS

The other person must then in turn immediately reveal their own fear that has been triggered by our complaint (they will have one too) and, along with it, the cause of their fear. When you accuse me of X, I feel afraid of Y. And then: this makes me afraid because…

Throughout, both people should accept that they are bringing a distorted, over-intense perspective on the situation. No one should lay claim to normality. Her are two crazy people trying to make themselves understood. No one is sane and no one is bad. 

If couples follow this simple three stage rule, there will still be arguments at points — but love will survive and, as each person understand the other’s vulnerabilities ever better, deepen and grow.

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