Do you Have Conflict Rules of Engagement?

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:

  1. Stay focused. Get clear on what the issue really is, and avoid bringing up other issues, tempting as it may be.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5.  Ask for a time out. Agree that you can request a time out if one or both of you is becoming upset or escalated.
  6.  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.

Learning to manage conflict well is a big relationship strength!

Curious to learn more about your relationship strength and growth areas? Check out this couple’s exercise:  Couple’s Strength & Growth Areas


Observation Without Evaluation

The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once remarked that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence. When I first read this statement the thought, ‘What nonsense!’ shot through my mind before I realized that I had just made an evaluation. – Marshall Rosenberg

The Power of Thank You

Do you know what your partner most wants to be thanked for?  Do you let your loved ones know what sort of recognition is most important to you?

In this 3 min TedTalk Laura Trice discusses the importance of asking for and giving thank yous.

What are your Expectations?

It’s good to set our expectations high isn’t it? There are all sorts of quotes telling us to do just that:

By asking for the impossible we obtain the best possible. -Giovanni Niccolini 
High expectations are the key to everything. -Sam Walton

And yet Shakespeare said: Expectation is the root of all heartache.

Having high expectations might be a good thing in terms of knowing what we want from ourselves and our partners….but these expectations can create barriers if we don’t understand what is behind them. One way to gain some insight into the root of our expectations is to take a look at our family of origin. Because our family of origin is the first relationship dynamic we experience, we can — both consciously and unconsciously  develop ideas of how we and our partners should behave. This can be especially true in relation to how conflict is managed. For example, if your family of origin dealt with conflict in ways that were volatile, scary or conflict was discouraged, you might then have difficulty knowing how to address disagreements in your present relationships in healthy and appropriate ways. Instead of learning conflict management skills in your family, you likely would have developed tools and skills for protecting or distancing yourself from these situations. In your current relationship this might appear as expecting your partner to be agreeable all the time, or feeling attacked when your partner brings up difficult topics.

You can ask yourself following questions to better understand your family of origin:

  1. What roles did your mother/father/guardian play?
  • Taking care of finances
  • Housework
  • Yardwork
  • Communicating style
  • Child rearing
  • Career
  • Activity and social planning
  1. Were men’s and women’s roles defined differently? If so, how?
  2. When you were hurt or scared, who did you run to? How did they respond to you?
  3. Were decisions discussed or did one person make the decisions?
  4. What sorts of issues caused conflict or disagreement in your family?
  5. How was conflict handled by different people in your family?
  6. How were you affected by conflict between other members of your family?
  7. Was conflict seen as safe and necessary or negative and unsafe? Explain.
  8. What emotions or feelings were not okay to express during a conflict? In general, who determined this and how?
  9. Did each family have different roles during conflict? (e.g. initiator, peacemaker) What was your role?
  10. What skills did this role teach you?
  11. How did you cope with conflict or soothe yourself when there was a conflict?

After answering those questions, take a moment to consider how these early experiences may impact your expectations in your current relationship. Are there any roles you may unconsciously be playing or expecting your partner to play? The more clearly you understand your early family dynamics, the more you can begin to choose how you respond in your current relationship… and the more you can be conscious of what roles you might be playing or expecting your partner to play. Through this clarity you can begin to dismantle another potential barrier to connecting with yourself and your partner.

Healthy Conflict = Healthy Relationships

Client: hello, my partner and I are interested in couples counselling
Me: I’m glad you guys are looking for some support – that takes courage. What’s led you to seek counselling?
Client: hmmmm it’s hard to put into words….ummmm….I guess communication….

Communication difficulties are cited by 90% of people who contact me for couples counselling. Couples know that something isn’t working and can give me lots of examples of communication going sideways. While hearing about the content of their conflicts is a starting place, in order for insight and change to occur it’s necessary to go deeper and that takes some dedicated work. How does each person view conflict? What is happening in her/his nervous system? How was conflict handled in his/her family of origin? How well can each person regulate his/her own emotions?

Conflict is a natural and needed part of building and maintaining an intimate relationship. So the goal isn’t to get rid of conflict but to help couples to find ways of engaging in and repairing conflict in order to increase feelings of safety, connection, and intimacy.  That can sometimes feel like a tall order! But luckily there are lots of amazing tools and strategies for helping people change how they communicate.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to talk about some of the tools the couples I work with have found particularly useful: Stop-Replay, Regulating your Nervous System, and Emotional Bids.