Let’s face it: conflict is often a necessary and unavoidable part of almost all relationships. However, we do have choices about how we behave and engage during conflict situations. Most of the time, couples are just relieved when the conflict is over and want to put it in the past. While an all-out fight can be a release valve for built up frustrations and hurt, if neither person ends up feeling heard or safe enough to speak up, the conflict won’t be resolved, but simply swept under the carpet only to re-emerge another day.
Why bother with Rules of Engagement?
Everybody comes into relationships with a set of their own attitudes and beliefs, shaped by their family of origin and past experiences. With these past experiences come different perspectives related to conflict. Imagine a relationship where Partner A avoids disagreement at all costs, while Partner B finds it difficult to stop talking about an issue until he/she feels it is resolved. During an argument or disagreement, Partner A might feel overwhelmed and either acquiesce or shut down, just to keep the peace, while Partner B might feel frustrated or abandoned, like he/she just can’t connect.
Here are some simply strategies to help increase the chances of turning conflict into a useful conversation:
- Stay focused. Get clear on what the issue really is, and avoid bringing up other issues, tempting as it may be.
- Set a time limit. It can be helpful if both partners agree on how long the conversation will be, so neither of you feels trapped. A typical time limit that many couples start with is 30 minutes. If more time is needed, take a break and come back to it.
- Set a date. Scheduling a regular, weekly time to check in with each other can help to ensure that little issues don’t become big ones down the road.
- Make sure your partner is in the mood to talk. If not, plan for a different time in the near future and stick to it.
- Ask for a time out. Agree that you can request a time out if one or both of you is becoming upset or escalated.
- Be curious. Come into the discussion with an attitude of curiosity about what your partner is saying, rather than one of defensiveness. Remember, being curious does not mean you have to agree, but it might help you to be more understanding of your partner’s point of view and where your he/she is coming from.
It isn’t always easy to create rules of engagement and they aren’t always easy to stick with, especially in the heat of the moment. Work together with your partner to establish a set of rules that both of you can agree on, and remember that it’s an ongoing process that can be changed and refined as you go.