Conflict and Couples

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Conflict is part of any relationship.

We find it at work, with our parents and roommates…but why is it so devastating when it happens in our (romantic) relationships?

But there are healthy and unhealthy ways to engage in conflict with each other.

When we can find healthy ways to address it, conflict can often open our eyes to things we may be doing that we weren’t even aware of and it can also help us understand our partner at a deeper level.

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As part of a couple we tie ourselves together but we are also our own people with our own needs or perceptions.  When conflict arises, I believe we can look at it as a tool to strengthen, not weaken our relationships. 

I truly believe (and have seen with my clients who come to me as a couple) that once we learn, and keep re-learning, to really listen and communicate – this is when the healing begins and we get back to remembering why we were together in the first place, not just who forgot to do the dishes or pick up the kids.

The Voices In Our Head

One of the leading causes of conflict between couples is our Shitty First Draft (SFD).  Originally coined by Anne Lamott and recently made popular by Brene Brown, our SFD is our first reaction to something.   Our SFD is usually full of inaccuracies because we are missing all of the facts and instead we go ahead and fill them in ourselves. It is the little voice that says …

Our partner complains and the SFD in our head tells us that it’s our fault (self-blame) or it tells us they have no right to complain (defensiveness).  When, maybe the complaint had nothing to do with us in the first place?

But we are already fighting, the original intent of the complaint is now lost because we are arguing our points and not listening to each other.

Taking My Own Advice

Just like any other person, I am not immune to falling prey to my own SFD.

For example, when I recently received a text from my husband … “I’m leaving in 15 minutes.” Instantly, I am annoyed. I’m at least 30-40 minutes from home.

* Why does he think I’ll be home in 15 mins? (Blaming him)
* Did I screw something up tonight? (Blaming myself)
* Doesn’t he know my schedule? (Defensiveness, more irritation).

This all happened inside my head in under a minute. This is my Shitty First Draft.

Joy Was Not In The Control Room 

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This time, I caught it before it grew and simply said, “I’m leaving work now and won’t get home until at least 30 mins.”

His response, “Oh, I looked at your calendar wrong and thought you would be home earlier.  I’ll just leave when you get back.”

I instantly soften, my defenses dissolve. No irritation or blame just an automatic feeling to reciprocate and help him.  “Great, I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

So this is a small moment in my relationship but these small moments build and can either increase in positive interactions or negative interactions.

(Side note: I believe texting has only increased our SFDs as many couples fight over the wrong interpretation of each other’s text and one person has no idea the other person is upset.)

3 Ways To Diffuse Conflict Before It Begins:

It might sound rehearsed or unnatural in the context of your relationship but I promise any time we ask for clarification on something we are more likely to get all of the facts instead of what we just fill in.

When you start to get irritated, annoyed, defensive consider asking, “What did you mean by that?” or  “I want to make sure I don’t misinterpret what you just said.”

1. Clarification – What did you mean by that? (Ideally in a non defensive tone :)

2. Listen and Pause – Really listen to your partner before crafting your zinger of a response and Pause before you reply.

3. Teamwork – You are in this together.  It’s not us and against them.  It’s the two of you working through the conflict together.

Sometimes with very small changes, the conflict can be productive, helpful and not something to be feared or avoided.

For more in depth information about couples and conflict here are some masters in the field of couples therapy and books they have written-



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