On Couples Conflict and Its Resolution
Don’t betray the trust of your partner
A niece got married recently, and we visited the new couple to play boardgames and hang out. As the evening progressed, the conversation turned toward relationship advice, and my wife and I found ourselves sharing some lessons we had learned in our respective bumpy lives; my wife and I found each other comparatively late, and we’ve each got a weight of experience (and hard lessons learned) that we stay mindful of to make and keep our relationship successful. Something we found ourselves emphasizing to this new couple was conflict resolution.
We laid out for our niece and her man what we have found to be a successful conflict resolution sequence between partners. I like to think they listened, and in conversation with my wife afterward it felt like this might be a good thing to share more broadly. It definitely felt like it pointed at my Substack theme. So here you go.
Creating the Space
When something is wrong, one partner can tell. There’s a whole other conversation to be had about sensitivity to “wrongness” and paying attention to the emotional climate of your relationship, but I’ll skip that here. These ideas begin once one partner has sensed that something is wrong, and the sequence has four important lines which I’ll script here (with commentary following each one).
Partner A: Is something wrong?
This is the big open. “Are you okay?” is sometimes reasonable, too, but it’s usually the inferior option because it can sound accusatory, like whatever the problem is it’s Partner B’s problem and not a shared problem that the two of you can work out together. This seems like a lot of thinking for an opening line, but this first step is critical because it establishes that Partner A is paying enough attention to sense that something needs to be addressed.
Of critical note: if you’re Partner A, be sure when you start this that you’re not bluffing. It’s easy to ask “is something wrong?” while internally chanting “please say no, please say no, please say no” so you don’t actually have to do anything. That’s a betrayal of B’s trust. If you ask, care enough to want an honest answer. If you don’t care enough to want an honest answer, end your relationship; you’re not ready for one. That’s blunt, but it’s also true.
Anyway, the answer (when something is actually wrong) should be very simple:
Partner B: Yes.
This is the first place conflict resolution goes wrong. Conflict resolution within a relationship is something that needs to be entered into carefully. Everybody needs to be completely clear about what they think and how they feel, so shorter answers are better. Seriously. If you’re Partner B, don’t unleash a torrent of feelings in response to that first question. If you do, there’s a good chance you will say something you will regret. Instead, take a breath and make sure both you and your partner are ready to talk calmly.
Partner A: Do you want to talk about it?
Note this response is not “what’s wrong?” Avoid “what’s wrong” and accusations like it, for the same reasons to avoid “are you okay?” given above.
Partner B: Not yet.
Note that this response must never be “no.” If something is wrong but you are totally unwilling to talk about it, you are giving your relationship appendicitis. Toxic rot will bloat until your relationship explodes in a noxious mess. It will be both mortal and painfully slow. Refusing to talk about a problem signals that your immediate emotions are more important to you than your sustained relationship. If that’s so for you, end your relationship; you’re not ready for one. That’s blunt, but it’s also true.
For healthy long-term relationships, “not yet” is the secret sauce of conflict resolution. It says you want to resolve a problem, but need to take a breath and figure out the specifics. B might have a well-defined problem that can be addressed right away, but the odds of that are slim. More likely, there’s a whole jumble of hurt that needs to be sorted out before anything coherent can be discussed. By answering “not yet” here, two very important points of trust are established: B trusts A to wait until B is ready to talk, and A trusts that B will eventually be ready to talk. It is imperative that neither partner’s trust be betrayed here, or whatever the original hurt is will be compounded.
If you’re Partner A, don’t nag at B to share prematurely. B needs some time to figure out how to describe the hurt, and if you force this to happen too fast you won’t get to the root of it (and you may both say things you’ll regret). I know you’re asking because you want to fix the problem. You’re asking because you care. Remember, however, that you’re not fixing a problem so you can feel good about fixing it. You’re fixing a problem so you and B can continue to grow together in trust and love. If you nag about the problem, you risk making it all about you (singular) instead of your relationship. Avoid this trap by taking a breath and making some space for B to get the problem straight before you both talk about it.
If you’re Partner B, if you say “not yet” then there must be a “yet” in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t betray the trust of A by using “not yet” to mean “yes but I’m never going to tell you what.” I know you’re hurt. But the pernicious thing about hurt is that it brings a rush of emotional energy, and that energy can be weirdly addictive. You will be tempted to just nurse the hurt so you continue to feel the rush. But that makes it all about you. It means you’re pushing your partner away so you can get high on hurt. It’s unhealthy, and it will destroy your relationship. You have to come out of that emotional state and get into a thinking state. So take a breath and use the space provided by your partner to organize your thoughts for sharing, and share them as soon as it’s plausible to do so.
Sorting It Out
So you‘ve used the four lines above to make space for Partner B to map the contours of the problem so it can be discussed. Good job! If you’re partner B, this section is for you. Your partner has trusted you with some space to think, and it is important you get yourself figured out. How you do that is ultimately up to you. Everybody’s different, and has different ways of thinking things through.
I’m not going to try and tell you how to think. That would be absurd. However, I do want to take some space here to talk about the three places you might find yourself, and offer you some encouragement.
Option One: You Get Over It
It’s possible as you get your thoughts organized that you resolve the problem internally. Maybe you realize the problem wasn’t as big a deal as you thought, or even that you had it wrong and it was all a big misunderstanding. You might also recognize that it’s a very good thing that you paused a moment to think it through instead of smashing A in the face with it like you wanted to in that first moment. Yay for you! However, it is still important for you to walk through your process with A. Remember, A is trusting you to have the conversation. So have it, even (and especially) if the pause has allowed you to put the original problem in proper perspective and get over it. Do not come back to A and say “don’t worry about it” or “I’m over it” with no further explanation. That’s a betrayal of A’s trust.
Option Two: You Get Your Thoughts Together
There will be times when the problem does need to get talked about. In that case, that’s what A wants anyway, so talk about it. There’s a pretty good chance that in your thinking you also realized that what you thought was the problem is actually a symptom of a deeper problem. That’s excellent. Talk about it with your partner calmly, now that you’ve had time to get past the rush of being hurt and can look objectively at the problem.
Option Three: You Get Some Help
It’s possible that taking time just confuses you more. It’s possible you need to talk to a third party who can help you sort out what’s wrong so you can even understand it. There’s no shame in this, and it’s actually a really good thing for you to get some help. There’s all kinds of counseling services out there. Some cost money, but some might be free. If you belong to a church, talk to your pastor. If you work for a company with benefits you might have access to work-subsidized counseling. If you’re a college student there’s almost certainly a counseling center (like for therapy, not class scheduling) you can hit up. Whichever way, there’s nothing wrong with you if you need to sit down with somebody to help figure out what’s bugging you.
HOWEVER, be careful that you don’t use counseling as a way to cut your partner out of resolving the problem. You’re using a counselor to understand your problem, not resolve it. Your partner is trusting that you’re going to come back with organized thoughts, not that you’ll come back with “you don’t need to sweat it anymore because I figured it out with my therapist.” The two of you need to learn how to work things out together, not bail to a third party for those tasks. Don’t cut your partner out. That’s a betrayal of trust.
Working It Out Together
If you thought it was going to get easier, I’ve got bad news. This part, the last part, is the hardest one of all. The dangers I’ve warned you about prior to this are all about dodging this conversation. There are lots of ways this process can derail, leading to neither of you being truly honest. If you let that happen, you’ll never resolve anything, and your relationship will wither and die. To avoid that, you’re going to have to do something really scary: see the process through and be vulnerable with your partner.
If you’re Partner B, this step is about calmly explaining the problem. That can be harder than it sounds. It’s easy to just shriek at your partner while you’re having the rush of hurt; you’ve got all the adrenaline going and you want to just blast it at somebody, and your partner is right there (and is an easy target). You’ve avoided that by taking some time to come down from the emotions and be rational. But now you have to stay calm and explain yourself instead of just shouting. That might involve you revealing some kind of insecurity. That’s scary, but it’s critically important.
If you’re Partner A, you’ve set the stage for this, so now you have to hear B out. There’s a good chance that B’s problem is with something you did, and you’re going to have to face that. One or both of you is going to have to honestly consider changing something–making some kind of adjustment to how you talk to each other or treat each other. That’s scary, but it’s critically important.
Note that this process does not end with “Partner A does whatever Partner B wants.” Conflict resolution isn’t about one partner waiting to be told what to do next. It’s about making space for both of you to decide what to do next together. Both partners will probably need to do something in pursuit of fixing the problem. And you’re each accountable to the other for that. That’s scary, but it’s critically important.
But you can both do it! And as you do, your relationship will grow into something unique and beautiful. Conflict resolution is intensely personal, and some of the things you talk about will be unshareable outside your partnership. That’s okay. Lean on each other for support. Build each other up. It’s work that’s worth it.
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