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All's Not Fair in Intimate Relationships
There are a number of reasons for why it can be so difficult for couples to resolve their differences in a mature and constructive way. To begin with, partners often come from diverse backgrounds, each being exposed to different role models that shaped their beliefs regarding appropriate relationship behavior and how relationships work in general. There is also the learned behavior that they acquired over time through relationships within their social networks, places of employment and larger community. These interactions led to the formation of their ego defenses that are employed as a way to cope with conflict and stress and the difficult feelings that accompany these. Then there are the inherent differences that exist between how men and women express themselves and confront problems and the individual personality traits they each possess. If we really think about it, it's amazing how well some couples negotiate and resolve their differences.
So what skills are most useful in helping individuals deal with their negative feelings in order to maximize their chances for attaining constructive and positive outcomes following disagreement or conflict? The short answer is that they would benefit from learning the rules of fair fighting along with more effective ways to communicate their feelings and needs. They can begin by familiarizing themselves with the following basic set of conflict resolution tools and applying them in a loving and consistent manner.
* Establish ground rules and keep them
Ground rules should include basics such as no shouting, name calling or interrupting. Agree to take a time out if either person is too heated to have a reasonable discussion. When this is done, a specific time to talk later should be set. Couples should only discuss their grievances when alone and out of range of children and other family members. Otherwise, sides are taken and others can be triangled in, which weakens the relationship and can lead to others taking sides.
* Practice Effective Communication
Be careful to avoid words like always and never as they basically contain an accusation, which can lead one's partner to become defensive and shut down. Maintain focus when the other person is speaking. This will be aided by turning off phones, TV, computer and agreeing to not be distracted by any of these potential interruptions. Utilize reflective listening to let them know you heard and understood what they had to say. This technique is employed by paraphrasing back to the other person what they have just said. Watch your body language. Maintain an open posture and face the other person directly. Keep consistent eye contact and a fairly close physical proximity to them. Sit together as opposed to standing while the other person sits. Lastly, don't respond in kind to the other person's bad behavior. If they begin to raise their voice or shout an accusation, keep your voice modulated and stay with the topic being discussed. Throughout your discussion, watch your tone. How we say something speaks as loudly as what we say. If the conversation veers into personal attacks, the possibility of a constructive talk ends. If this happens despite the best efforts of one of the individuals, it is time for a time out.
* Set boundaries up front
Stay with the topic. Agree upfront to not bring up past hurts and problem issues from months or years ago. By staying focused, it is much easier to keep things contained to the current issue instead of turning the conversation into a war of hurtful words and personal attacks that have little to do with the problem you are trying to resolve.
* Avoid Enabling
Enabling occurs in a variety of ways. For instance, if one of the individuals acts in a selfish and hurtful manner and their partner ignores or downplays the impact it has on them- they are basically giving their significant other a green light to continue behaving in this way. Reinforcing your partner's bad behavior also results from covering it up by making excuses to others or attempting to fix a situation so that your partner does not have to deal with the natural consequences that would have resulted from their actions.
* Reinforce Positive behavior
Don't comment solely on the negatives. Make sure you offer words of praise for the small, thoughtful things your partner does. This is especially true when it is clear that he or she is attempting to make a positive change, based on prior feedback from you or a previous discussion you have had. We all respond well to caring words that let us know we are appreciated. It is a powerful way to help someone change their childish and selfish behavior into assertive and mature relating.
* Pick your battles
Not every issue has the same weight or seriousness. Make an effort to be flexible and willing to compromise around the many small situations that arise. This will help to keep tension down and to signal your partner that when you do bring something up it is a real problem, not just you wanting to get your own way by complaining and badgering them into compliance.
* Remember that no one can change another person
Both individuals will need to be open to compromise and to learning new tools for resolving their differences. One person can't do the work for both, and no amount of half an effort can effect real change. However, it does take some time and consistent effort- but with these, great milestones can be achieved.
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Toni Coleman, LCSW
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