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Patricia Burns, a psychotherapist based in Toronto, says that, if handled correctly, conflict can actually help improve your relationship in the long run. Instead of shying away from conflict, Burns suggests that couples address conflict directly and practise the following skills.
1. Communicate openly
Use conflict as an opportunity to communicate openly and talk through any issues you may be facing as a couple.
"Conflict offers the opportunity for each side to make their views be known, to hear what the other is thinking, and resolution to be based on full consideration of both parties," explains Burns.
By opening up the lines of communication, she says, "guesswork and assumptions are eliminated, and decisions reached and acted upon are with full knowledge of consequences." Working through conflict in this way can strengthen your relationship as a couple.
2. Listen actively to your partner
For couples looking to work through conflict in a way that will help improve their relationship it's essential to practice "active listening," says Burns. "This means you don't just hear words and regurgitate them, it means you work to understand what exactly it is the other is trying to tell you."
It's also important that you listen with empathy. "Try to see the issue from their perspective," says Burns.
Lastly, if you want to improve the conflicts in your relationship, watch your words. "Avoid statements that include the phrases 'You always' or 'You never,'" explains Burns. "Similarly, it is not helpful to speak from a judgmental attitude, for example, stating 'What you did was wrong/hurtful/mean.' Rather, speak from your own feelings and perspective."
This means explaining to your partner how their actions made you feel, such as, "When you do A it makes me feel B," says Burns.
"Finally," she adds, "try to remember this person is not your enemy. They are your partner, someone you love and who loves you. None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes and do things we really wished we hadn't from time to time."3. Take time to think about the problem
It's important for couples to keep in mind that not all of their issues have to be resolved in one sitting. "Sometimes both parties need time to think over and digest some of what has been discussed and come back to it at a later date," explains Burns.
Timing is everything. It's OK to take time to cool off before discussing an issue. And "do not tackle an issue if either of you is hungry, tired or intoxicated," she suggests.
Finally, "choose your words carefully," says Burns. "Words once spoken cannot be unsaid." Refrain from name-calling and don't be afraid to apologize for your role in the conflict.
4. Know when to let it go
We all know the saying "Don't sweat the small stuff." However, in relationships the small stuff can actually build up over time, creating bigger issues. If small issues aren't dealt with, resentment can start to seep into the relationship in small subtle ways, explains Burns. Often larger conflicts will erupt because of something that was said or that occurred days, weeks or even months earlier.
"Wallpapering over hurt feelings and pretending they don't exist or will disappear in time is not helpful nor healthy for the relationship. So while it's wise to allow cool heads to prevail it's important not to wait too long, allowing anger and resentment to build," says Burns.
"If you are able to speak with an attitude of inquiry, not accusation, and with the intent to offer up information to help fill in the gaps rather than to embarrass or humiliate, it will go a long way to open up communication and encourage resolution," she explains.
However, Burns is careful to point out that "there is some merit in taking the long view and letting some of the little things go. If you find just about everything your partner does or says annoys or hurts or angers you, then you must ask yourself if this is really the person for you."
5. Keep in mind how you feel about your partner
"Many years ago, back in high school, I had a teacher that told me you had to like, as well as love, your partner. I think there is something in that," says Burns.
It's important to ask yourself: "Do I like, respect and trust my partner?" she says. "If I can honestly answer 'Yes,' then when conflict arises I need to remind myself of this and filter all thoughts and words through that filter."