Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tips for Dealing with Conflict for Couples

Updated 6/25/2021
Nurturing Love and Respect

Relationships can contribute to happiness and they can also contribute to pain and sorrow. I have experienced both and discovered some things that helped me navigate the terrain (when conflict arises). 

One thing that is helpful is knowing what specifically to do to cultivate more happiness in your relationship instead of experiencing hurt and heartache. Here are some tips on cultivating a life enriching relationship straight from my journal.

Don't Take it Personally
1. When your partner is angry or upset they may show up in a way that is quite unpleasant for you and others. For instance, your partner may tend to exaggerate and make things sound worse than they are to be heard. They may use language like "always" and "never." The key is to remember that they are in pain. Hurt individuals hurt others because they don't know how to deal with the hurt. They are communicating out of pain. Don't take it personally. They have something very valid to share. You can listen to their feelings and needs to discover it, but don't listen to their evaluations of you or the marriage. If you listen to their evaluations you will get depressed or angry. Take the time you need to gain your composure and to get calm then get curious about what is behind the message. If it gets too hard take the time you need and talk later.

Dealing With Judgments, Blame & Power-Over
2. When your partner or spouse judges, blames and uses power-over strategies it is important to focus on centering and grounding ourselves. If we are grounded and are calm, we can choose to help them de-escalate or give them time. It can be difficult  to bear through conflict when it occurs and we may need to increase our capacity to be with discomfort and conflict. Yet, it is key to remember we can only control how we respond and not the other person's behavior. So, focus on what you can do instead of trying to get them to change. For instance, you can calm down by walking away, you can try to empathize, you can take some deep breaths, you can ask for some time, you can let them know that you are only willing to talk when both of you are calm or you will walk away, etc. These are all things you can do.

If needed, give yourself some time and space to have time alone and connect with your feelings and needs. Sometimes we can do this in the moment of conflict but most of us will need to take time. 

By connecting with your feelings and needs you are validating them and giving yourself understanding and empathy. Then when both of you are calm you can communicate them by using 'I" messages (example: When I hear voices raised I feel frustrated because I want peace and respect for our family). Don't say the word "you" when sharing "I" messages. If your partner is still in pain you will want to help them communicate their feelings and needs first and then share yours. Someone who is still hurt will not be able to hear your feelings and needs. Once you have validated your partner's needs and expressed yours you can brainstorm together to come to a reasonable solution that meets both of your needs. 

If your partner has a pattern or habit of using judgments, blame or power-over then you may want to seek help from a therapist, counselor, or experienced life coach. You cannot change another person but you can influence them to consider change by suggesting help or (if needed) setting boundaries. There is no excuse for domestic violence and if this is occurring you can leave the relationship either for a time or indefinitely. You may want to create a safety plan if you plan to leave and will want to make sure it is safe to do so. Most violence occurs when someone tries to leave the relationship. 

Focus on What You Can Do
3. Focus on changing yourself and not on changing your partner or their character faults. It is okay to make suggestions or give feedback if they are open (this is healthy when there is an openness to learn from each other). Giving feedback that is welcome is very different that trying to change someone or fix them. We are generally inclined to want to change or fix others. It seems easier and more convenient but it doesn't work. Putting your energy into changing someone is wasted energy and can be exhausting. This is different from influencing them. But putting hope in influencing them to do as you would like can also cause trouble if you get attached to an outcome and then get very resentful. Whether they will change or not is unpredictable and depends on them. Also, keep in mind that sometimes an outside party will have more success influencing your partner than you will.

Focus on what you can change - yourself. When your partner does something that stimulates pain in you it is your responsibility to keep it together and respond with love and respect. Work on your responses and behavior. Helpful questions to ask yourself are ... "What can I do to feel better? What can I do to calm down? What can I do to bring more peace to the relationship? What can I do to manage my anger better? What can I do to respond better when I am criticized?" "What can I do to be emotionally and physically safe?" The more specific you can respond to these questions the higher likelihood you will enact different responses and actions. 

Avoid Comparisons
4. Don't compare yourself or your partner with others. This will only make you and them miserable. Accept that you did not marry the other person and did marry your spouse (if you are married). Accept your partner for who he or she is and make a commitment to love them regardless. Even if your relationship or marriage is 10 times harder than other marriages (sometimes we tell ourselves this), if you stick it out and do the work needed you will experience a shift and movement towards healing. You will grow immensely as a result and you be will be able to help others as well with your new found wisdom regardless of outcome. (If you are in an abusive relationship or there is infidelity going on you may want to consider getting professional help or separation).

Don't Imply Wrongness or Blame
5. Never imply wrongness of other or blame each other. This is hard to do but key to a grace-based relationship. Make an agreement to never blame or imply wrongness of the other and if you do quickly accept responsibility for it. If you make a statement that implies wrongness you can be accountable by saying this: "I am deeply saddened that I said something that implied wrongness because this is not what I want to do. I really want to express my feelings and needs and not judgements and blame."

Unconditional Positive Regard
6. Assume positive intention and practice having unconditional positive regard. Everything that your partner does or says that is uncomfortable or annoying for you is connected to a need of theirs. If they raise their voice and call you a slob they are most likely feeling upset and need cooperation, cleanliness, understanding or support. If you focus on what they need (what is behind the action) you see them in a different light. They are just in pain and don't know how to communicate their need in that moment. There is something they really long for and if you can connect to the longing you see their humanity and not a negative projection.

Eddie Zacapa is a certified trainer for the Center for Nonviolent Communication and author of the book Principles and Practices of Nonviolence: 30 Meditations for Practicing Compassion. He does coaching for couples, individuals and families. You can reach him at   

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Yelena said...

I respectfully disagree with your post.
If your partner tends to exaggerate and make things worse than they are, judges, blames and uses power-over strategies - focusing on changing yourself and not your partner is NOT the right thing to do.
"Even if your relationship or marriage is 10 times harder than other marriages, if you stick it out and do the work needed you will be 10 times better for it." - I think that is a pretty strong statement to make. Are you sure? Can you actually give that advice to other people without knowing their particular circumstances? I don't think so.
I agree nurturing love and respect is important, but it has to come from both sides, and I don't think spouses who judge, blame and power-struggle are showing either love or respect and are most likely emotionally abusive.
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Eddie Zacapa said...

Yelena - Thanks for your comment. I always welcome questions and different opinions because I think it allows me to go deeper into the subject and bring more clarity to the matter.

I have learned that we cannot change other people and that when we attempt to do this more tension and conflict occurs. Focusing on changing your partner leads to dissappointment and defensiveness on their part. It is a waste of energy. I have found that the only thing we have control over is ourselves (our response to things) and even this is hard to do. If someone yells at me or insults me I have the option to yell back or insult(by doing this I also am using power-over strategies and trying to control them and the situation with my words) or I have the option to not use power-over strategies. I can walk away and talk when things are calmer. I can not take the statements made of me personally and be free to pain. I can take deep breaths to stay calm and not become what I despise. Many times I have found that when I respect the other person their is a higher likelihood that I will get my needs met and that the other person will apologize or be more open to talk calmly later.

I hope that you are not proposing that people try to change their partner. I think this will lead to much misery.

In relationships there is a lot of mirroring that goes on. When one person does not respond back with power-over strategies and instead responds with respect and love the climate of the household will usually change for the positive. Having worked with over 600 clients who have reported back to me in regards to this I have found this to be true.

It is key to remember that most people demonstrate some power-over strategies in their relationship (yelling, criticism, judgment, sarcasm, silent treatment, etc. are all power-over strategies) at times. When these behaviors become the norm or a pattern they are considered abusive.

It is true that relationships thrive when both partners respect each other, but if one partner sometimes falls short it is good to know that we can still respect the other and that this will help the couple to restore harmony. Otherwise every time that one partner falls short we would give ourselves a license to lower ourselves to their level. No ... may it not be so. We are responsible for how we respond!

When it comes to a marriage being 10 times harder than another marriage, I do believe that if the couple sticks it out and does the work needed to make the relationship healthy they will be better for it. By "work needed" I mean seeking counseling, setting boundaries, being responsible for how they respond, etc. that lead to the relationship becoming healthy. If the relationship is abusive and stays abusive then that is another story. But the learning experience for the couple that does give their all in trying to restore the relationship is successful is immense and very helpful in helping other couples in the future.

If the relationship is abusive in nature then that is another story. Maybe you did not read number 4. I state that if there is abuse to consider separation or seeking professional help. But even in these cases it is important to remember that we cannot change the other person who is abusive and that we can only change how we respond. One change we can make is to set boundaries. For example one boundary could be to leave the relationship. This is what we can control. Many people try to change their partner and stay in an abusive relationship for many years hoping for a miracle that never comes because we cannot change others!

This is a long response but I wanted to respond to your concerns and bring more clarity on these matters.