Reframing conflict: How to deal with arguments in your relationship
Conflict is an inevitable part of any close relationship – it’s not a sign of failure. Here’s how to navigate disagreements in a healthy way.
The difference between couples in successful partnerships and those who struggle isn’t how much they argue. It’s how they deal with differences and how they repair connections in the aftermath of an argument. In many cases, knee-jerk reactions can see partners react to stress and fear differently, which can make things harder. However, with some awareness, intentional practice, and reframing, conflicts can become a healthy stomping ground to growing your relationship.
The unconscious cycle of conflict
Imago Relationship Therapy teaches us that we subconsciously fall in love people who mirror our childhood wounds and longing. Yet their defensive response to pain is often opposite of ours. For example, if you need space by withdrawing and shutting down during times of conflict, it’s very likely that your partner’s defensive response to the same situation will be talking about the issues. In Imago we call this dynamic the ‘minimiser’ and ‘maximiser’.
Reflect on one of the issues you’ve complained about. You may have been vocal and aggressive, or you might have given up and reacted passively. Either way your chosen behaviour probably didn’t get you what you wanted – it might have even made the situation worse. These behaviours often become agreed unspoken ‘scripts’ within relationships that create an unconscious repetitive scenarios which rile further anxiety. In this situation, the conflict becomes more about your relationship between the two defensive mechanisms, rather than the real issue.
Whether your defensive response is to attack or avoid, you activate your partner’s defensiveness. It means that your partner’s brain doesn’t receive you as someone who is safe to be around. This isn’t to say that you’re a danger to your partner, but your partner’s brain perceives it as such, and the central nervous system reacts accordingly. Think about which specific behaviours are required by your partner for you to become a source of safety.
Cross the bridge
Put your reactivity aside and see the situation from your partner’s point of view. Pay attention, not only to what’s said, but to the emotional subtext it reveals. Cross the bridge into their world and experience their perspective, considering their history and past experiences. It’s not about agreeing with their perspective, but about deep listening, deep understanding, as well as validating and empathising with their feelings.
What you’re arguing about is rarely the actual issue. Deep listening from a place of curiosity and wonder will help shed light on the real story underneath the conflicted surface. Is it about not feeling appreciated, heard, or safe? Has an old wound been opened that’s related to a sense of feeling inadequate, abandoned, or over-controlled? When you listen long enough, you can understand and empathise with your partner’s past experiences and break the cycle of taking your partner’s reaction personally.
View this conflict as a growth period. You have the opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your relationship. It will move you outside your comfort zone but onto growing and healing in your most vulnerable place.
What does the relationship need from you?
One of the core ideas of conscious partnership is focusing on the relationship as ‘us’ – rather than ‘I’ and ‘you’. To fully understand this, you need to move away from a ‘victim’ mindset. For example, avoid any language that describes the reasons a situation is your partner’s fault, or how your partner needs to change in order for you to be happy. A victim’s mindset will only create more rupture in the relationship and disempowers you in making necessary changes. Instead, think about what your relationship needs from you right now.
In simple terms you’re reframing the conflict from what I need from the relationship, with what the relationship needs from me. The former looks for gratification, the latter focuses on the relationship as a whole. Imago suggests this thinking is based on the understanding that when the relationship is better, the individuals feel better and not the other way around. In other words, when you care enough about your relationship, you as an individual will benefit the most.
Think about your relationship and what it needs from you right now. Is it to show up more, to initiate more, or to be more emotionally and physically present? Or is it to contain more, to self-regulate, or to show up with vulnerability instead of anger and aggression?
What exactly do I want? (Rather than what I don’t want?)
As human beings, we’re far too focused on the negative – on what we’re not getting, rather than what we have or what we want. Your partner might not give you what you want in one area of life, but don’t let that overshadow all the wonderful things they do.
What I’ve found interesting is asking my clients: “what exactly do you wish for?” They usually start to explain more about what they don’t want. “I don’t want her to criticise me near the kids”, “I want him to stop telling me what I should do”, “I hate it when he is late and I’m waiting for him”, “I don’t want her to complain all the time and be grumpy”.
Here is the golden rule – whatever you’re focused on is what will grow. So if you keep focusing on complaints, control, lateness, and so on, it doesn’t matter what words come before that (“I don’t want…”). The brain only registers the core words (in bold above) and this is what will continue to grow. If you want to change it, practice saying what you want. Be very specific with the desired behaviour and use positive wording.
To continue with the examples above, it might be: “I’d like you to support me more in front of the children and any disagreement we have will be discussed respectfully and privately”, “I’d like you to trust my abilities and judgment”, or “when I come home from work it would be lovely to greet each other with a smile and a hug”. Ultimately, negative words raise defences. Positive words raise cooperation.
Starting conflicted conversations on the right foot
Firstly, check-in with your partner and ensure it’s a good time for them to talk. Jumping into a conversation when your partner is in the middle of something or mentally occupied is never a good start.
Then, start the conversation by sharing appreciation for each other, acknowledge your intentions, and outline your common ground, values, or goals. When you operate from a place of love and respect, it’s more likely you’ll reach a productive and successful conclusion. Avoid using the word ‘you’ and instead speak in ‘I’ position (I feel, I think, In my experience).
Remember that you’re talking with the person you love, not with the enemy. Adjust your tone of voice and choose your words accordingly. Rather than talking about the past, look for agreed ways to move forward. At the end, don’t forget to thank your partner for this conversation and appreciate the growth this issue offered you and the relationship.
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari is a relationship expert, psychologist, and therapist. Her 30-day online course ‘Ready for Love’ is specifically designed for couples who are looking to transform challenges into an opportunity for a meaningful and happy relationship.