All relationships, no matter the communication skills, openness, commitment and faithfulness, have tension and conflict. Even though we strive to be one flesh we still remain two individuals who view issues and relationship from two different perspectives. With the recognition of these differences and the desire to remain in the relationship, a way to resolve the conflict is necessary. When we first began to look at what caused stress and conflict in our relationship the first thing we had to be mindful of was that we are always striving to keep our relationship strong, not to merely be right or prove a point. After we used the ideas stated below for several years we began to see that they were part of our lives and we didn’t have to stop and think about them so often. We discovered that we needed these in order to have a more peaceful relationship rather than merely keeping the peace. You may have ways of resolving conflict but perhaps you will find something useful here.
We found this list of hints for dealing with conflict in a relationship on the University of Kansas web site. It is aimed primarily at college students and their relationship with their roommates. Interestingly, we have seen variations of this list many times over the years, but written for married couples. Since disagreements and conflict must be dealt with in every relationship, we thought it might be fun to repeat the list and add our marriage perspective to the comments. For the sake of clarity, our comments are in bold type.
- Negotiate a time to talk about it. Don’t have difficult conversations when you are very angry or tired or when one of you is involved in a favorite activity or work project. Ask, “When is a good time to talk about something that is bothering me?” Healthy relationships are based on respect and have room for both of you. Don’t expect a good discussion while he is watching a football game or she is watching her favorite reality show. It is equally as important to remember to set aside enough time to talk and have a good discussion. Failure to negotiate a time may lead to more tension and deeper unresolved issues.
- Don’t criticize. Attack the problem, not the other person. Open sensitive conversations with “I” statements; talk about how you struggle with the problem. Don’t open with “you” statements; avoid blaming the other person for your thoughts and feelings. Healthy relationships don’t blame. This is a matter of taking responsibility for your own actions and feelings. Listen to your partner and be ready to admit your part in the issue. “You” statements tend to be accusations and immediately make the other defensive.
- Don’t assign feelings or motives. Let others speak for themselves. Healthy relationships recognize each person’s right to explain themselves. We tend to attribute another’s statements and behaviors to a conscious intention to hurt or a callous failure to care. Listening to the other can lead to a surprisingly different perception of the situation and often leads to an immediate easing of tension.
- Stay with the topic. Don’t use a current concern as a reason to jump into everything that bothers you. Healthy relationships don’t use ammunition from the past to fuel the present. One of the ideas that we have used is that unless the issue has already been slotted for future discussion nothing older than the milk in your refrigerator should be stated. This is interesting for us because as Bob as often said to me “you have a trivial mind.” I can indeed remember minute things. It is often handy for a variety of things but when there is conflict it can become unfair ammunition for me.
- Say, “I’m sorry” when you’re wrong. It goes a long way in making things right again. Healthy relationships can admit mistakes. We think it is also important to forgive your partner and to ask them for forgiveness. That can be hard to do, but it is a great help in healing hurts. When we say the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, we hold hands and at the words “forgive us our trespasses” we squeeze each others’ hands as a sign of our forgiveness of the other. It reminds me that I sometimes do or say things that hurt Rita and to be more careful of my actions in the days ahead.
- Don’t assume things. When we feel close to someone it’s easy to think we know how he or she thinks and feels. We can be very wrong! Healthy relationships check things out. The woman who was the speech and theatre teacher for many years at my school taught her students about the difficulty of the word assume. It can easily be broken into three words with a not so pleasant result. We have learned to say to each other—I heard this, is that what you meant? Or, I meant this but I didn’t seem to communicate that to you. When we make assumptions we can be very wrong! Healthy relationships require each of us to check things out.
- Ask for help if you need it. Talk with someone who can help you find resolution—like your RA, a counselor, a teacher, a minister or even parents. Check campus resources like Counseling Services at xxx-xxxx. Healthy relationships aren’t afraid to ask for help. If you no longer have a campus minister available, a professional counselor may be what you need. We have a caution on this one – be sure you find a counselor who will help you to make a better marriage, not one who will quickly conclude that it is hopeless and recommend a divorce.
- There may not be a resolved ending. Be prepared to compromise or to disagree about some things. Healthy relationships don’t demand conformity or perfect agreement. Rita and I have different temperaments. We feel passionate about different things and sometimes rotate the roles of optimist and pessimist. Even as we wrote this we couldn’t exactly resolve who has which role. This often leads to some tension as it just did, but we recognize it for what it is and accept the fact that neither of us is going to change the other, so we have learned to live with it.
- Don’t hold grudges. You don’t have to accept anything and everything, but don’t hold grudges—they just drain your energy. Studies show that the more we see the best in others, the better healthy relationships get. Healthy relationships don’t hold on to past hurts and misunderstandings. Grudges get us nowhere. They prevent us from seeing the goodness of the other. Grudges have a backward focus instead of looking forward. Grudges keep us from saying I’m sorry or granting forgiveness. They make it virtually impossible to resolve issues and eliminate tension. After forty-five years of marriage we have learned that most of the issues that caused tension over the years weren’t all that important. We have more fun when we just let them go and concentrate on the goodness and giftedness of the other and add to the enjoyment of our time together.
- The goal is for everyone to be a winner. Relationships with winners and losers don’t last. Healthy relationships are between winners who seek answers to problems together. It helps us to both be winners and resolve conflicts when each of us focuses on the good qualities of the other and the ideas they have to solve the conflict or handle the issue, supports the things they say or do, and rejoices in the successes of the other in all that they do.
While we have seen these items many times, an occasional reminder helps us to pay attention to them. They help us to deal with tensions and lead to a peaceful relationship rather than keeping the peace without dealing with underlying tensions. We hope you found something useful here.
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