“There is nothing I love as much as a good fight.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt
You may have heard of the rules of fair fighting: No name calling, no blaming, no swearing, take time outs when needed, no ultimatums. Focusing on the rules of engagement in conflict, however, is the wrong approach because it can miss the mark as the issue behind conflict goes unseen and unrepaired. This does not mean that fights are a free-for-all where anything goes.
Instead, the focus of any relationship conflict should be what is going on underneath the surface conflict: finding the clues about how to connect in a better way and integrating this into your relationship. When the issues behind conflict are not dealt with, couples can become over-focused on a set of rules, and these rules may simply become another thing to fight about. How then does one manage relationship conflict in the moment? The answer requires an understanding of why conflict occurs in the first place.
Conflict in a relationship is normal, even necessary.
It occurs when two unique, separate individuals miscue, miscommunicate, jump to conclusions, or make assumptions; in short, when, through the timing of the moment or the busyness of life, two people miss something important about each other.
A conflict escalates into a fight, however, when you react to the miscue as an insult or attack—when you mistake the messenger for the message. “Wait a minute something isn’t right here” is the message of a conflict and this message is lost whenever the issue becomes about how your partner is speaking to you—about each person’s individual upset. This is when the fight starts. It is unrealistic to expect there to be no conflict in a relationship but conflict that spirals out of control can be destructive.
Fights are like acid, eating away at the reserves of kindness and goodwill needed to keep a relationship healthy. They usually involve what John Gottman calls “flooding”—a physiological fight, flight, or freeze response to a perception of danger.
There are useful tools for dealing with flooding, but this whole process can be better managed by seeing the value in conflict in the first place.
If you have learned to look at conflict as a useful indicator, you will better be able to see missed signals and the needs behind them, instead of blaming your partner or becoming reactive—taking a miscue as a personal attack and starting the juggernaut of physiological flooding (an adrenaline and cortisol reaction). Once the flooding response begins, most conversation is not possible and we need to soothe ourselves and our partner.
Missing the value of conflict can often be seen in parents’ reactions to a child’s escalation over a forgotten hat or the wrong size of drink ordered. If a young child becomes upset about something and a parent misses this as a chance to connect and find out what a child needs (usually a sense of control over something in their lives), focusing instead on the rules: “Don’t speak to me like that; stop crying,” the child will escalate things into a larger conflict.
Both parent and child will likely become flooded and then everyone is miserable. While children do have less developed nervous systems are can be more prone to upset, in some ways the same reactions are present throughout our lives, especially with our intimate partner, and learning to accept misconnect as a road sign pointing towards better reconnection helps put conflict into its proper place.
Rather than an end to conflict in relationships, you want to avoid fights by seeing conflict as opportunity to reconnect.
Relationships that are in trouble are characterized by lists of rules and responsibilities—chore lists or fight-fair sheets. Couples will also usually try to assign blame after a fight—“This is what you did that broke my rules.” These rules can, in fact, serve to hasten the end of a relationship, as the useful meaning in a conflict can becomes missed.
Instead, see conflict as opportunity to reconnect emotionally and find out what was left by the side of the road. If it feels like your partner is picking a fight, this too is an opportunity to find out what is going on beneath the surface. The result? Better connection; you figure out how to get on the same page again and needs get met.