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Managing Conflict in Your Relationship

Your complete guide to managing conflict and repair in a romantic relationship

Here is everything you need to know about the common mistakes people make, what happens to your mind and body on a physiological level and the antidotes to conflict.

Relationships are at the heart of our very being and yet can be incredibly difficult to manage at times. I have designed this guide on how to manage conflict in your relationship. I hope to offer guidance on some of the most important ways to communicate in relationships. Most of my clients in my private practice have come to me due to relationship issues. I have studied relationship counselling and deepened my knowledge with further study in Gottman and Emotionally Focused Therapy. I specialise in adult Attachment Theory and understand that many relationship conflicts can arise from different attachment styles. I help many individuals and couples improve their relationships in my private practice. Furthermore, like you, I have been through heartache, disengagement and relationship difficulties and had to learn many skills the hard way.

In this guide, I will provide you with 9 of the most common mistakes and patterns people get stuck on during conflict. I explain what happens to you and your partner on a physiological level to help you to understand what is occurring in your mind and body. I offer you 8 practical antidotes to help repair damage caused by conflict and introduce healthy communication. So you can build trust, intimacy and a secure connection with your significant other.

Nine common mistakes made during conflict

First, I want to extinguish the myth that conflict is bad in a romantic relationship. Whist conflict can feel unpleasant, when handled well, it can make your relationship deeper and more secure. When in conflict, we can get caught in the following behaviours that create distance between our partners and ourselves.

#1: Not knowing you or your partner's Attachment Style

This is one of the main reasons clients come to me for counselling. Our attachment has a profound effect on how we behave in romantic relationships. Not understanding each other's Attachment Styles can lead to misunderstandings, distance and intense arguments, which sabotages the relationship. You can often be under high levels of stress as you blindly try to navigate your partner's and your own needs. Learning about attachment and being attentive to your partner's needs goes a long way to building a healthy and secure relationship with your partner and, most importantly - with yourself.

#2: Not listening

Another behaviour that can create heartache is not listening to the other. When we argue, two people are trying to express their needs and not feeling heard. When you are caught up in the heat of it, it is easy to not listen to what your partner is saying. By you honing into what they are saying, you may be surprised and resolve the misunderstanding much faster.

#3: Mindreading

Have you ever had an argument and expected the other person to 'just know' what you need? This trap can end in pain as the other person is clueless about what is happening inside your head. It can also go the other way when we think we can read our partner's mind and know their thoughts. Although we know that there is no way we can read minds. This is more often seen in people with anxious/preoccupied attachment styles. Noticing when you are mindreading is the starting point to breaking this thought process.

#4: You are right, and they are wrong

When we feel that we are right about the argument, we can become closed-minded and unable to consider the other person's point of view. Stay curious about what they are saying and stay open to their perspective.

#5: Not saying what you need or avoiding arguments altogether

This is one of the most common mistakes, where you may not mention something that is bothering you for fear of getting into an argument or not being liked. People with insecure attachment styles tend to do this as they fear disappointing their partner. Not stating your needs can lead to internal resentment and, if not addressed, can lead to a blow-up that often appears to have 'come out of the blue'' adding stress and distance in the relationship.

The final four behaviours are referred to as the four horsemen and were documented by leading relationship researcher John Gottman. Gottman observed that these four behaviours were frequently present in relationships that ultimately failed. Read on to hear about the pitfalls you may find yourself falling into and what you can do to help improve communication.

#6: Defensiveness

This often comes up when you or your partner feels attacked or threatened. It is used to shift the blame and protect yourself. Whilst this is the most common, it can be the easiest to change. It starts with you taking responsibility for the argument. Take a step back and think about how your behaviour may have hurt your partner. Once you stop being defensive, you will notice that your partner will also drop their guard.

#7: Criticism

This can be painful for the partner and cause emotional wounds. In the heat of arguments, the action of the other can be targeted. By introducing what is referred to as a 'gentle start up' you can come to the discussion from a heart-centred approach rather than blaming the other.

#8: Stonewalling

This can happen when we don't feel safe entering into the conflict so we close down. It may look like staring at the floor, not responding to questions or walking away from the situation. Stonewalling is more common if you have an avoidant attachment style. This is often because some people with avoidant tendencies have not learnt how to be able to express their needs and emotions. If you or your partner are shutting down, it means you are in a 'freeze' response to the situation. The first step is regulating the autonomic nervous system. Whilst you are in this state, it is impossible to think clearly and rationalise the issue at hand.

#9: Contempt

This is when the person will put the other person down by slating their personal feelings and needs. According to John Gotman, this is the worst of the four horsemen and the biggest predictor of separation in relationships. Contempt is more prevalent in people with narcissistic traits and can become a form of emotional abuse. It is not healthy, when someone behaves cruelly towards the other. If you find that you can use contempt towards your partner, try coming from your own needs and feelings. Avoid dismissing or criticising your partner's needs.

What happens to your body during a conflict with your partner

On a physiological level, our bodies and minds change during conflict. This guide provides you with the tools to gain control and tackle the conflict more effectively.

Research shows that relationship tension and stress can lead to health issues due to increased cortisol and blood pressure. This may lead to a weakened immune system and medical conditions such as strokes and heart disease. Yet, having a secure and healthy relationship actually increases health, longevity and happiness levels.

When you enter into conflict with your partner, your amygdala, the alarm system in your brain, gets activated. Once activated, you enter into a hyper state of arousal as your autonomic nervous system gets triggered. Your body's adrenal glands release stress hormones of cortisol and adrenalin. You may notice that your heart starts to beat faster as your blood pressure rises. Your body is preparing for fight or flight. You may notice your teeth clench and your throat constrict. This leads to a shift in the tone of your voice, and you may become louder as you try to get your partner to hear you. Your breathing becomes quicker as your body tries to take in more oxygen, which can lead to hyperventilation in extreme cases.

When you are in this hyper state of arousal, your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain used for problem-solving, empathy and rationalisation, becomes inoperable. The thalamus, the area of your brain used for prediction, starts to go into overdrive. It can often catastrophise the situation and create a narrative of the event that usually it out of proportion to the problem. An example may be that the relationship is over or thinking that your partner is cheating on you, although there is no evidence to support this. The argument may have started over a disagreement about who would do the dishes and ended with you imagining leaving the relationship for good.

As you can see, your body and mind work on a primal level and are set for re-action rather than action. It is difficult to 'think' your way out of a conflict. The key is tuning into your body.

What you can do to improve communication during an argument with your partner

Eight Antidotes to conflict

As you can probably tell, our main mistakes are pretty common when a conflict with our partner has activated us. Here, I will give you some tools to help ground you in or before the heat of an argument, provide eight tools to enable you to communicate your needs and calm down both your and your partner's autonomic nervous systems.

#1: Notice what is happening in your body during a conflict

The first step is tuning into your body and noticing when your body is moving into hyperarousal. Observing sensations in your body helps you identify the need beneath the issue at hand. What are the first signs you notice when discussing a sensitive topic? Is it your heart racing or your hands starting to tremble? By noticing, you can calm your nervous system by using a grounding technique. This will prevent your brain's 'alarm system' from going off. Breathe slowly and remind yourself that you are safe in the moment and have no threat.

#2: Calm down your partner's autonomic nervous system

If you notice that your partner has been activated, you can help them calm their nervous system. Research shows you can lower blood pressure by simply holding hands during an argument. You can also hug each other or breathe together to help bring you both down into a functional state and continue the discussion. This process can help your partner to have the mental capacity to address the problem at hand.

#3: Use Gentle Startup / "I" statements

When having a discussion, it is easy to slip into the blame game. If you can, take the time to understand what it is that is truly bothering you. You may be angry that they are late home from work, but the perpetual issue may be that you feel they don't really care. By reflecting on the issue at hand, you can start to see the real need underneath the problem. When we come from our hearts, we are more likely to have our partners hear us because they don't feel attacked. When you start a statement with You, it can make your partner feel defensive straight away. Try coming from a softer internal heart-centred approach by using the term "I" when starting a statement. An example of using I statements.

Instead of "You never do the washing."

Try - "I feel exhausted when I am the only one doing the washing because I feel I am doing most of the work. It would mean a lot to me if you could help"

Try addressing the problem immediately or within 24 hours to prevent the issues from manifesting. State your needs in a calm tone so that it does not feel disapproving of your partner.

#4: Understand you and your partner's Attachment Style

Understanding each other's different attachments helps to provide insight into the deeper relationship issues, which can otherwise be misunderstood. For example, if you have an anxious attachment and your partner is avoidantly attached, you be more sensitive to signs of rejection and need more reassurance from your partner. Your avoidant partner may need more space to reflect on things and feel suffocated by too much demand on them. This cycle can lead to you pushing for your need of validation and your partner pulling away for their need of space. The more you educate yourself about attachment, the better prepared you will be to prevent getting into unhealthy conflict patterns. Having a secure attachment in relationships boosts relationship satisfaction, trust, intimacy and connection. Research also shows that secure connections also leads to more enjoyable sex, improved self-worth and better health and well-being.

#5: Have a Timeout

When you are in the midst of an argument, and both are heightened, neither of you will be able to think rationally. Pre-discussing a 'safe word' to allow time out can work wonders. The word can be as simple as "time out". It is important to be accepting of each other when using the word. After it is used, take at least 20 minutes to calm down your nervous system. Go for a walk, and having a change of environment can help. Have a pre-agreed time frame and place to meet back up to discuss the topic. If you find it escalates again, repeat, until you are both calm enough to discuss.

#6: Use humour

Injecting humour into the situation is a powerful tool to calm emotions and bring both parties closer together. It's important to be careful that your partner does not feel you are making fun of them. Making a joking comment towards yourself or adding some playfullness can help break the tension in the air and lighten the mood.

#7: Listen to your partner

It may sound easy, but when we are triggered or feel that it is our way or the highway. It is hard to listen to your partner. Sure enough, you might feel you are right, and you don't even have to agree with your partner's opinion. All you need to do is be open to their viewpoint. Using statements like "I hear what you are saying" or " I can see why you would feel that way" Can close the distance between you and allow your partner to feel heard. Even if you have different opinions, it allows you both to come together and tackle the problem as a team rather than competing against each other. Listening also prevents mindreading. Ask questions if you don't understand. Listening can help you stay present and allow room to have a deep conversation and get to the heart of the issue.

Sometimes relationships can feel lonely. If you find that you can not have important discussions with your partner and are in a difficult place with perpetual issues that you can not get over. Having a third party can assist you in navigating the challenges. Counselling offers you a safe space so you can improve communication and better understand the deeper issues within the conflict. If your Attachment Style impacts your relationship, working with a trained therapist individually or in couples therapy can help heal old attachment wounds created in childhood or unhealthy relationships. It will also enable you to get to the heart of your emotional needs and articulate this with your partner. Furthermore, it can help you to build your self-worth and confidence. For further information and to see if counselling is right for you, get in touch for a Free consultation

Ready to take action

I hope this guide has helped shed some light on how you canmanage conflict with your partner. Taking the first steps can feel daunting. You are literally changing the neuropathways in your brain. But the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Each time you implement one of the antidotes, you will notice less conflict and more connection with your partner. Remember that both people are hurting and need to be heard during conflict. Slow it down, try to remain present with each other, and genuinely listen to what they have to say.

If you need some support navigating conflict or understanding Attachment Styles, reach out for a Free Consultation. Relationships can be tricky, but working through your conflict with a trained therapist will bring you closer together with your significant other.

Conflict in relationships is normal. It is how you communicate and repair ruptures that counts. However, there is no excuse for violent or emotionally abusive behaviour. If you feel you are in an abusive relationship and need assistance, contact your local Family Violence support group or call 1800 RESPECT.

If you have any questions or comments, please share them below.


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