I get suspicious of couples who say they never have conflict; that everything is always hunky dory. The truth as I know it? Couples have conflicts. More specifically, when the level of commitment increases in any relationship (intimate partnerships, friendships, even promotions at work), so does the level of conflict. It’s often temporary, but it’s intense.
Intellectually, I know that stuff comes up to make way for behaviors and habits that more fully support the new level of commitment and intimacy. But knowing that doesn’t always make it clear how to work with what’s coming up.
When Jake and I moved from living together to being married, several patterns and behaviors that interfere with a long-term, sustainable marriage reared their ugly head. It’s not that we didn’t have conflict before we got married; we did. But “closing the exits” turned up the heat. It tested our commitment to ourselves, each other, and the intentions we had set for our marriage.
The blessing? We got REALLY clear about strategies that help us be with ourselves and each other during difficult conversations, reactivity and conflict.
The benefits? Fewer conflicts. Increased willingness to have difficult conversations before they become outright conflict. More ease and play in our lives. Needs for safety, commitment and interdependence met. And, I’ve got good stuff to share with you! I’m doing a lot more relationship coaching (a blend of Intuitive Life Coaching and NVC), am offering a Relationship Building Series in ABQ starting March 15, 2012, and have a Growing Authentic Intimate Relationships Retreat scheduled for October! Now, on to the TIPS….
7 Tips for Navigating Conflict in Intimate Relationships
1. Have a process.
The foundation of our process is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), although we’ve tweaked it to include spiritual growth practices and processes that work for our specific personalities. The most important thing is to choose a process you are both committed to and are willing to practice alone, with each other and in community. Most importantly –USE IT for easy AND difficult conversations.
2. Have a ritual.
Know where you’ll sit to have the conversation (we sit on the couch in the den). Sit facing each other (even if you cannot yet look each other in the eyes). Start in the same way each time (we check-in, decide who will share first, and then begin – usually it’s the person who asked for the conversation). Ritual creates relationship. Develop a ritual that expresses the highest intentions for your relationship and do your best to stick with it even when you’re at your worst.
3. Prioritize connection.
In NVC circles it is often said that strategies organically arise when people are connected and self-responsible. Practice noticing when you are prioritizing being right, getting your way, or a specific strategy instead of connection. Own that you’re doing it and re-prioritize.
During difficult conversations, we prioritize connection by using reflective listening (asking “Would you tell me what you heard me say?” or “Would you like a reflection?”). When the speaker’s need for understanding is fully met, then we move on; time for the listener to share what came up for them. We move very slowly and deliberately through this process until we feel connected (until we really understand and accept what’s up for each other), then open to strategies.
4. Slow down.
When we’re triggered, our tendency is to move quickly to resolve this uncomfortable experience. However, the faster we go, the more room for further misunderstanding and disconnection. Move slowly through your shared process, making time for self-connection and self-care. Breathe deeply and often; when listening and especially before responding. It’s counterintuitive, but it works!
5. Engage in difficult conversations when resourced.
The fastest way to hell on earth is to talk about difficult issues or try to resolve conflicts when we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired (H.A.L.T.), or short on time. Address the lack of resources first. Be willing to put the conversation off until you are both resourced enough. (How? See #7.) Sometimes, if one person is feeling present and self-connected (what I call resourced) and the other is triggered, entering into your process can work; sometimes not. Experiment and discover what works for the two of you.
6. Know when you’ve had enough and be willing say so, kindly.
We all reach a saturation point – that moment of overwhelm when we can no longer stay present with ourselves or our partner. This is often the point at which the conversation turns from being productive to wounding. Learn to notice when you’ve hit that wall. Take a breath, and say to your partner “I’m overwhelmed (or triggered, or whatever), can we pause?” By consistently coming back to the issue when you’re resourced, you cultivate trust; trust that no matter how long of a pause you need (minutes, hours, days), you will re-engage and re-connect.
7. Cultivate the capacity to be with yourself when triggered.
This, I think, is where the rubber meets the road. Most of us habitually project our hurt and anger onto someone else in order to feel better (otherwise known as blaming & shaming). It may seem to work temporarily, but it doesn’t; blaming and shaming does not support connection with ourselves or others. Ever.
What to do instead? Your work. It’s the hardest and most rewarding gift you’ll ever give yourself and your partner. Work with a therapist, coach or peer group to identify the needs and patterns originating from your family of origin that no longer serve life. Owning them (and your story) and choosing life-serving habits cultivates self-responsibility, acceptance and connection with yourself and your partner.
What else? Engage in spiritual practices (meditation, contemplation, prayer, etc.). These practices increase spaciousness – our capacity for being with ourselves and our partner without being overtaken by our emotions or ego. When we create spaciousness and self-acceptance within ourselves, connecting with others is way easier.
My bottom line: Cultivating the capacity to be with my own discomfort and strong emotions (especially shame and fear) is essential to decreasing conflict and increasing joy in my marriage and my life.
So, what about you? How do you navigate conflicts in your intimate relationships? I’d love to hear!