We can all agree that good communication can improve relationships, increase intimacy, trust, and support. The opposite is also true: poor communication can weaken bonds, create stress, mistrust and deteriorate relationships. Because conflict is virtually inevitable in relationships (and not necessarily a sign of trouble), you can reduce a significant amount of stress and strengthen your relationships at the same time if you build the knowledge and skills to handle conflict in a healthy way.
Here are some examples of negative and even destructive attitudes and communication patterns that can intensify conflict in a relationship. Do any of these sound like something you’d do?
Avoiding Conflict Altogether
Rather than discussing building frustrations in a calm, respectful manner, do you ever choose to just not say anything to until you are ready to explode, and then blurt it out in an angry, hurtful way? This may initially seem to be the less stressful route — avoiding an argument altogether — but usually causes more stress to both parties as tensions rise, resentments fester, and a much bigger argument eventually results. It's much healthier to address and resolve conflict when it arises.
Through therapy, you can learn assertiveness communication skills that can help you to say things in a way where you will be more likely to be heard, without being disrespectful to the other person.
Rather than addressing a partner's complaints with an objective eye and willingness to understand the other person's point of view, do you ever become defensive and deny any wrongdoing? Do you work hard to avoid looking at the possibility that you could be contributing to the problem? Denying responsibility may feel like you are alleviating your stress initially, but it will create long-term problems when others don't feel listened to and unresolved conflicts continue to grow.
Overgeneralizations can increase the drama when you're trying to resolve an argument.
When something happens that you don’t like, do you ever blow it out of proportion by making sweeping generalizations? This may involve making comments that start with, "You always," and, "You never," as in, "You always come home late!" or "You never do what I want to do!" Rarely is it true that someone “always” or “never” does something, so the other person becomes defensive while trying to prove otherwise instead of you two being able to talk about what is really bothering you. Do you ever bring up past conflicts to throw the discussion off-topic and stir up more negativity? This also stands in the way of true conflict resolution and usually increases the level of conflict.
Sometimes we're not aware of the ways the mind can blow things out of proportion. Talking it through with a therapist can help you clarify what is actually bothering you and help you put it into words so that you can be heard.
The need to "be right" can prolong and intensify conflicts.
Do you ever have the tendency to try to correct the other person’s perceptions, lecturing them about why you are right and they are wrong? It's damaging to decide that there's a "right" way to look at things and a "wrong" way to look at things and that your way of seeing things is right. When you demand that your partner see things the same way, it will lead to conflict. Also, if you take it as a personal attack if they have a different opinion, you will always feel at odds. Counseling can support you in finding a compromise or agreeing to disagree, and help you see that there's not always a "right" or a "wrong" way and that two points of view can both be valid.
"Psychoanalyzing" / Mind-Reading
Instead of asking about your partner's thoughts and feelings, have you ever decided that you "knew" what they are thinking and feeling based only on faulty interpretations of their actions — and too often assume it's negative? An example of this would be deciding that your partner showing up late meant that they didn’t care enough about you to be on time. Deciding what their intentions are without seeking to understand, creates hostility and misunderstandings. A therapist can help you see if this is a pattern that is happening and work with you to assume nothing and instead listen to the other person and let them explain where they are coming from.
Forgetting to Listen
Are you someone who often interrupts, roll your eyes, or rehearse what you are going to say next instead of truly listening and attempting to understand your partner? This pattern keeps you from seeing their point of view and will stop your partner from wanting to see yours. Counseling can teach you how to really listen to the other person and empathize with them. In turn, your conflict will decrease and more of your own needs will be heard.
Playing the Blame Game
Blaming never resolves conflict.
Do you handle conflict by criticizing and blaming the other person for the situation? Do you feel admitting any weakness on your part diminishes your credibility and seek to avoid it at all costs? Do you ever try to shame them for being "at fault" to avoid looking at your part in the conflict? Therapy provides a safe place to view conflict as an opportunity to analyze the situation objectively, assess the needs of both parties and come up with a solution that helps you both.
Trying to "Win" the Argument
Trying to "win" an argument with a loved one is not as helpful as trying to understand.
Dr. Phil has a valid point when he says that if people are focused on "winning" the argument, the relationship loses. Do you ever make a case for how wrong the other person is? Do you discount their feelings? Do you stay stuck on your point of view without being willing to hear theirs? These patterns will take a toll on your relationship. A therapist can help you turn conflict into a relationship discussion where there is mutual understanding and can assist you in coming to an agreement or resolution that respects everyone’s needs.
Making Character Attacks
Making character attacks can do lasting damage, and it is never worth it.
Have you ever taken a negative action from a partner and blown it up into a personality flaw? For example, your husband leaves his socks lying around and you decide it’s a character flaw and label him "inconsiderate and lazy." Or your wife wants to discuss a problem with the relationship, and you label her as "needy," "controlling," or "too demanding?" This creates negative perceptions on both sides. Therapy can help you to restore respect for one another and deal constructively with the behaviors you don’t like.
When your partner wants to discuss troubling issues in the relationship, do you ever defensively stonewall, or refuse to talk or listen to them? This shows disrespect and, in certain situations, even contempt, while at the same time letting the underlying conflict grow. Stonewalling solves nothing but creates hard feelings and damages relationships. It’s much better to listen and discuss things in a respectful manner.
Ultimately, understanding your wants and needs as well as your communication patterns will establish valuable insight. You will have a better understanding of not just yourself, but of others around you and how situations may or may not unfold. Sue Shepard, MFT can assist you in gaining this much needed insight to allow for healthy conflict resolution.