A lover’s guide to conflict resolution
How do we challenge our unconscious thinking in the heat of an argument?
Learning how to resolve conflict is crucial to healthy relationships but it can also be super challenging. When we argue with our loved ones – whether romantic or otherwise, it’s built on a foundation of emotions, so it doesn’t take much for things to escalate. And while there’s more trust, empathy and compassion than in a conflict with someone else, this can sometimes exacerbate tension and trigger defence mechanisms rather than de-escalate the conflict. The good news is, it doesn’t always have to go that way.
Figure it out, don’t flee
Conflict can trigger our fight, flight or freeze response and overriding this takes practice and the capacity to be mindful in the heat of the moment. One thing worse than being in conflict is trying to avoid it all the time. Conflict avoidance is exhausting, unhealthy and creates more stress than the actual conflict you’re speculating about in your head. You’re much better off spending that time and energy working on developing some conflict resolution skills so that when a conflict does inevitably pop up, you’re able to handle it without your stress or emotions spiralling out of control.
One of the reasons being in conflict is so unpleasant is the effect it has on our ego. Because our ego is made up of all the thoughts, opinions and beliefs we have about ourselves and the world, when these beliefs are contradicted, our ego perceives it as a personal attack and a threat, so we unconsciously enter a state of stress. Unless we learn to consciously challenge this default stress response, we enter conflict feeling defensive and more closed off to amicably resolving it. So how do we challenge our unconscious thinking in the heat of an argument?
I’m starting to think creating a moment of space between action and reaction is the closest thing (and most attainable) to a superpower. When a conflict begins to build or kicks off suddenly, try to create some time and space to pause and process what’s happening. Take a deep breath, take a mental step back from the conflict and ask yourself whether this argument is worth the energy. Will it matter in a month’s time? If it won’t, relax, quiet your ego and get ready to let it go. If it’s an important issue, taking pause will still help you quiet your ego and shift your headspace into conflict resolution mode instead of digging down into defensive mode.
If you hate conflict, it’s helpful to remember that conflict isn’t inherently good or bad. Of course, there are good and bad types of conflict – clean fights and dirty fights – but it’s usually our perception of it and the narrative we create around it that stirs negative feelings. If you know you avoid conflict, it’s worth digging into why. You probably shouldn’t love conflict but being comfortable with it will help reduce a lot of stress in all aspects of your life. If you’re a people pleaser, you might be worried that the person you’re arguing with won’t like you because of the conflict – and this feeling can be amplified in a relationship.
Disagreement isn’t rejection
People like hearing their opinions validated – who doesn’t like being right and feeling knowledgeable? But when someone disagrees with you, subconsciously your ego goes into defensive lockdown. And your ego can create some really unhelpful narratives around it. It thinks, ‘my read on the world is solid and if it’s not then I need to re-think everything and that’s too hard, so they must be wrong’.
So you dig your heels in and argue your point. They also reiterate their point. And your ego crinkles with fear. It starts throwing up all sorts of thoughts because it doesn’t like being wrong. Maybe they are angry with us, maybe they’re being spiteful, or maybe they don’t love us anymore. And these are all possibilities but if you’re arguing over whether MAFS is more mindless than test match cricket, they’re probably ridiculous narratives that you should quash. It’s important to remember that when your lover disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they’re rejecting you or their feelings for you have changed. Maybe they just prefer a different kind of mindless television to you.
If you depersonalise conflict, you’ll see it can be part of a healthy dialogue. Having your opinions, views and beliefs challenged is an important part of critical conversations. If you find you shy away from scrutiny, ask yourself why – is it because you fear being wrong or contradicted? Or do you take conflict personally? Someone can disagree with you and still love you. Learning how to acknowledge when you’re wrong is one of the most powerful tools possible in diffusing tension in conflict.
Most of the time, arguments aren’t black and white, there are usually shades of right and wrong. And more often it’s all just a matter of opinion. Keeping that in mind, you can turn conflict into a win-win situation instead of thinking of it as win-lose. In a win-lose scenario, you’re either right or wrong. But you can frame it as a win-win. Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong but either way, you’ll learn something. You’ll either learn that your opinion is robust and can withstand the rigours of criticism. Or you’ll learn that there are different ways of seeing and doing things – win-win.
Take the de-escalator
No one loves being in conflict and the best way to avoid them in the first place is to listen to the other person. If you can see a conflict brewing, don’t freak out, don’t stress, just listen. This gives you a chance to pause, settle any rankled emotions, quieten your ego and, most importantly, understand what the other person is feeling and thinking. While you’re listening, try to identify the emotions you’re feeling – this will help stop them running away from you.
Give your lover time and space to talk and tell you what’s on their mind. Don’t rush to respond either. Let them talk and talk until they don’t have anything else to say. It can be super challenging to not interrupt but it’s critical in making your lover feel heard. It’s obvious when someone is listening to respond instead of listening to hear and understand. Concentrate on listening to better understand their view of the conflict because most conflicts escalate more than they need to because you’re arguing across each other about different things.
Clarify the conflict
Often you may not be in a direct win-lose argument. You may have different things to say about the same topic, but often you can both make your point, be heard, and move on without any ugly emotions of resentment hanging around for days. Clarifying and articulating the exact issue you’re arguing about can sometimes quickly resolve it right there and then. Ask them to put into words what the issue is and to show you understand, repeat it in your own words. It sounds simple but it can save everyone a lot of emotional stress.
Once your lover has had an opportunity to talk through their side of things, it’s your turn. Sometimes in a conflict, your lover won’t be ready to resolve things immediately. If you step into problem-solving mode and they’re not responding well, suggest taking some time to clear heads and organise to chat again later that day or week – the sooner the better really, but when you or they need time to reflect, it’s best not to rush it. If you’re struggling to de-escalate the conflict or resolve it, you can ask what they think a solution might be.
If you’re fighting with a lover, be quick with an apology, but not too quick. You love each other and the argument will quickly fade into insignificance as time passes. Remember, your lover won’t always remember what was said, but they will remember how you made them feel in the conflict. Apologising isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s not an admission of guilt or a sign of defeat. When you do apologise, and this goes for any time, not just in conflict, only say it if you mean it – never apologise because you think it’ll quiet them or that’s what you think they want to hear.