Kayla Lane Freeman
3 Tips to Avoid Turning Relationship Conflict in to a Fight
Every relationship has conflict — it’s unavoidable. But not all disagreements need to become a fight. Easier said than done, right?
In my clinical work, I help neurodiverse, queer and polyamorous couples argue less, communicate better and connect more. Today I’m sharing some tips to help all relationships — including family and friendships — avoid turning a disagreement into an all-out fight.
You’ll likely find these work best if both partners are using the strategies, but you’ll still see a change in your shared communication if you alone start using some of these skills. So let’s dive in!
First I gotta address a habit that’s guaranteed to make things worse:
1. Cut out the Always, Nevers and All The Times
During a disagreement, things can feel pretty black and white
“You leave dirty dishes in the sink all the time.” “You always come home late.” “You never want to spend time together.”
But this black and white language is a quick road to pouring gasoline on a conflict leading to an explosion.
These black and white words trigger our partner’s defensiveness and feelings of being misunderstood. It may be true that you’re feeling upset about a pattern of behavior, but using this language is unlikely to get you the change that you’re seeking.
Instead, your partner will likely feel defensive and point to an exception where this wasn’t the case. Next thing you know, you’re arguing about semantics instead of sharing feelings and coming to a resolution.
Instead, share observations of recent events or patterns that are emerging:
“You didn’t do the dishes today, and you also didn’t do them on Saturday.”
“I’m noticing a pattern that you have been coming home later than you say you will.”
“We haven’t hung out together since last Thursday.”
This may not seem very satisfying, or you may worry that your partner will hear these observations and still feel defensive. Or maybe you feel like it’s passive aggressive to share an observation and just leave it at that.
Never fear! The next tip’s got you taken care of. It’s a classic, and in fact you may have heard it before.
2. Share Your Feelings Using “I” statements
Here’s the recipe for an “I statement”:
I feel (insert emotion word here) … When (observation of factual event)
So, instead of saying: “You always leave the dishes for me to wash, and I’m sick and tired of it!” An “I statement” would sound like this:
“I feel frustrated and tired when I wash the dishes you left in the sink.”
But! Be careful when using your “I statement” that you don’t accidentally bury a “you statement” inside. That could sound something like this:
“I feel like you leave dirty dishes in the sink because you don’t care, so I feel like you just expect me to clean up after you!”
Even though this statement says “I feel” twice, the words that followed were not a description of an emotion. Instead they described what we assume our partner was thinking or feeling: “you don’t care”, and “you expect me to clean up after you.”
“I” statements prevent the blame game, and allow us to take full responsibility for our emotions. If we stop ourselves from making accusations and stick to just sharing our feelings, our partner can’t debate what we share — because it’s a fact that we do feel this way.
Here are a few more examples of “I statements” to help drive the point home:
“I feel sad and rejected when you choose to go out with your friends instead of choosing to watch a movie with me.”
“I feel angry when you tell me you’ll come home by 10, but then you arrive closer to midnight.”
“I felt ashamed and defensive when you commented on how messy my side of the bathroom counter is.”
But what if you’re talking with a partner who isn’t using “I statements”? As you listen, try and pull out the “I statement” from what they are sharing. Even if it sounds like they are accusing you or blaming you for their feelings, trying to see what they share as an “I statement” can help you keep your cool and hear the core of what they are trying to make clear to you.
Later, when the conflict has settled, you can share with them the “I statement” technique and invite them to join you in bringing it to your conflict conversations.
Using “I” statements effectively will require you to get curious about your own emotions, find the right word to describe them, and then you’ll have to muster up the courage and vulnerability to share those emotions with your partner.
It’s not easy, but with practice you’ll find that communicating with “I statements” will become second nature.
3. “The Story I’m Telling Myself”
“The Story I’m Telling Myself” is my favorite conflict resolution tip. Because sometimes “I statements” don’t go far enough to communicate our fears, frustrations and anxieties that often lead to arguments in the first place.
Like “I statements”, this tool also requires that we practice self-awareness and mindfulness of our feelings.
Instead of accusing your partner or making assumptions about why they did the upsetting action, first say “the story I’m telling myself is … “ to put voice to your fears without assuming the worst from your partner. Here are some examples:
“When you leave dishes in the sink, the story I’m telling myself is that you expect me to clean up after you.” “When you choose to hang out with your friends instead of me, the story I’m telling myself is that you don’t think I’m fun anymore and it’s a chore to spend time with me.” “When you came home 2 hours later than you said you would, the story I was telling myself was that you didn’t care about how I felt, and that you enjoyed me staying up worrying about you.” “When you made that comment about the dirty bathroom, the story I was telling myself is that you think I’m an irresponsible slob.”
As you can imagine, the combinations of stories we can tell ourselves are endless!
But when we jump to the conclusion that these stories are true instead of checking in with our partner, the conflict will certainly escalate.
“The story I’m telling myself” also helps us seek feedback from our partner to discuss what’s really going on. Sometimes our stories might actually have a little bit of truth to them. Your partner may not think you’re an irresponsible slob, but they may be feeling annoyed with the clutter on the bathroom counter.
By naming the story we are telling ourselves, we invite our partner to give us more context, correct the parts of our stories that are false, and help us better understand their point of view.
So let’s recap:
Cut out the Always, Nevers, and All The Times
Use “I Statements” to share how their actions make you feel.
And say “The Story I’m Telling Myself” to give voice to fears without making assumptions about your partner’s intentions or feelings.
By using these tips, you can stop the shame and blame game and start getting to the heart of the matter more quickly and with less explosive conflict.