Couples Handling Conflict

Every couple has conflicts, those topics that seem to turn you into instant adversaries. And whenever anyone brings one of them up, someone’s feelings end up getting hurt. Well, today’s post is for couples handling just such conflicts. Here is how to get started.

Couple agruingm stadning in the open window at home in the morning.


Don’t bring up complicated topics, like her spending or his mom coming to stay with you, when your spouse is tired or busy. Let them know you want to bring up something with them and agree on an appropriate place and time.

Make sure you both know the ground rules, like no name-calling, yelling, personal attacks, or any kind of uncontrolled anger. If someone breaks these rules, either spouse can call a time-out and come back to the conversation when things have settled down. Time-outs must be respected.

Both people need to feel listened to. So take turns serving as the listener and the speaker. Take ten minutes per turn. Stop after you have both had a chance to speak.

The speaker’s job is to say how you experienced a recent installment in the conflict you’re having, giving your version of events and your feelings about it. Yes, you will have the microphone for a while, but you can’t use it to criticize your partner or introduce other topics. Use I-statements instead of You-statements. Verbalize your feelings rather than acting them out. Instead of “You were so selfish and immature to invite your mom to visit without asking me!” say “I felt neglected and angry when you invited your mom to visit without asking me.” This is your chance to open up, explain things, and be vulnerable. Hold off on practical problem solving at this point.

Your job as listener is to bite your tongue and try to understand how your partner sees the situation. Do not contest their facts even if you think they are getting them all wrong. His/her feelings are based on that version of events, and he/she needs to be heard if you two are to relax your guard and restore the goodwill it takes to work together. This style of communication may seem forced in the beginning, but over time it will feel more natural and become a vital tool in your couple’s tool kit.

The listener’s job is not over until you can show that you were listening by summarizing what your partner has said and showing some compassion for how they are feeling. Remember that you don’t have to agree with someone to say that you understand. Also, you may tap into more compassion if you think of your partner’s words someday coming from your son or daughter and imagine how you would feel then.

For tougher conflicts, you should stop after one person has spoken, and let the other person have their turn the next time you sit down for this kind of heart-to-heart. If that proves too hard, each of you should try sharing something positive with each other the following time. Once that gets easier, you can get back to the more complicated stuff. If you still struggle, a couples therapist can referee and facilitate the process.

When you each feel cared for, you will be able to problem-solve. “How about we both get on the phone and find a way for your mom to visit that works for all of us?” you might suggest, without either apologizing for it or demanding it. Then, be ready to discuss the advantages and disadvantages with your partner. After batting a few ideas around, you can agree to a game plan, see how it goes, and take it from there.

Who knows what might happen? But you’ll know you have the skills to handle it!

–Dr. Adam