Resolving partnership conflicts
I was initially going to base this Section entirely on an article I read recently. I started writing about the advice in the article, but then one of the things in the article prompted me to write a bit about problems I had experienced myself, and then I realised that I would have to considerably change what I initially had in mind. So this Section has 2 parts: advice from me which is really aimed at situations where something drastic has happened; and then more general advice as to how to try to prevent drastic situations from happening.
Before I start, it is well worth pointing out that if you are in a partnership it is almost inevitable that you are going to have disagreements with your partner from time to time. I have seen some long-term relationships that are the exceptions to that rule, in that the partners never seem to have had a serious disagreement (at least publicly), and I have also seen some long-term relationships where the partners seem to seriously disagree about almost everything. In any event, my view is that disagreement between partners is not an unhealthy thing provided the partners have worked out a way to resolve their disagreements in a way that doesn’t seriously interfere with the health of their relationship.
Resolving drastic disputes
Over the course of my life I have managed to drastically upset various partners in various ways.
Usually it happens when I carelessly do or say something that is fairly stupid or thoughtless. (Just in case that might give you the wrong idea, this is something I only do every few years – it is not my normal behaviour, and it is inadvertent.)
With most partners I have been able to fairly readily resolve the situation by abjectly apologising. It’s usually not quite as simple as that might make it sound, as it normally involves a bit of time, and lots of repetitions of my apologies.
However, that’s the easy situation. My partner was prepared to talk to me about it, and to hear me out, and we were able to resolve the problem I created in a civilised and reasonably prompt way.
Unfortunately, I have had a couple of partners where that easy situation was never available. In both cases they were long-term partners (not necessarily either of my 2 spouses, by the way) whose first reaction whenever a serious problem came up between us (and I am talking about when I did something that my partner did not like) was to clam up and refuse to discuss the issue. And I’m not talking about clamming up for a few minutes or so. I’m talking about not wanting to ever discuss the issue, or at least not for a few days.
That, of course, goes against all of the sensible advice you may have heard about not letting things fester, or not going to sleep before an issue has been resolved.
Letting problems fester really is not good, not for the mental health of anyone, not for the long-term health of the relationship.
So, my first bit of advice is to never be the partner who clams up. If that has been your practice, please heed my advice and stop doing it.
I might mention that one of my partners who used to clam up on me was one of my first relationships. We occasionally had conflicts where she would clam up. Somehow we got over those conflicts, although I now can’t recall how we did it, or how long it took. I can recall that it took some time each time, and that in cases where I could see a way to resolve the problem (which was usually by me being willing to abjectly apologise for saying something that I shouldn’t have said), I felt pretty miserable knowing that there was a way forward if only … There came a time when I had to make a decision as to whether to sound out my partner about marriage. She was someone I knew I loved.
There were 2 problems: I wasn’t sure that she really loved me, and without knowing that, I wasn’t sure we could survive long-term given how we resolved conflict between us. In the end I decided it was too big a risk to take, and our relationship ended soon afterwards. Although I can’t say this definitively now, I am pretty certain I would have been prepared to take my chances on the first problem if the second problem hadn’t existed. (I note that elsewhere on this website I have suggested that I was asking the wrong question myself back then, as I should really have been asking whether there was sufficient mutual like and respect. One lives, one learns.)
What can you do if it is your partner that has clammed up ? As I’ve just mentioned, I can’t remember how we got things back on track with the first partner I had who used to clam up. But I am pretty certain that there was no magic formula way – it was just something that we both just eventually got over, so sorry, that’s completely unhelpful.
With the second partner I had who used to clam up, that is of more recent vintage, so I have a better memory of what happened. In every case that I can recall, whatever caused the conflict was something that I had done or said and that I was prepared to accept responsibility for. Essentially I just kept telling my partner that it was something that I was sorry for and that I would try to make sure wouldn’t happen again. For the first few hours that wouldn’t get much response, although I think the fact that it was me making the apology kept my partner’s ears open, even if I couldn’t get her to say anything helpful.
Eventually my persistence would have an effect, and she would be prepared to speak. Usually what she said was that it was easy for me to apologise, and how could she trust my apology ? Although from my point of view that wasn’t an overly helpful thing for her to say, at least she was speaking. My response was along the lines of what else could I do but apologise ? I couldn’t undo whatever it was that I had done or said, and my apology was sincere. Eventually there would be a thawing, and more discussion, and ultimately a grudging resolution.
Basically it was an unedifying, unpleasantly horrible way to try to resolve a dispute. If not for the underlying love, like and respect I had for my partner, it is not something I would want to put myself through more than once in a lifetime. Fortunately one tends to forget these things over time, and more fortunately, they only arose once in a blue moon, so I was able to cope.
So, my plea is, please don’t put your partner through the same process. When a problem arises, talk with them. Explain why you are unhappy. Accept apologies that are sincere. Sure, question their sincerity as much as you want, but be prepared to move on. You can’t possibly hope to resolve any dispute unless both of you are talking to each other. As far as I am aware, there is no other way.
All that’s one side of the story, the side where I have been at fault. What has the story been when I have been the one wronged ? Curiously I can’t recall ever being in a drastic situation where the cause was my concern over something that I wasn’t happy with. It’s not that I’ve had perfect partners – in fact all of my partners have been human. I think it’s more that my natural instinct is to indicate that I wasn’t happy about something and then move on. Things usually can’t be undone or unsaid, so it is just a matter of accepting that, trying to make sure that there won’t be a repetition, if that is a possibility, and getting on with life. Much of the advice in Part 2 below is along similar lines.
Take care with the nuclear option
Finally, I need to comment on the practice of some partners of invoking the “nuclear” option unnecessarily. The nuclear option is when you elevate an issue to partnership-threatening status. If you invoke the nuclear option every time that you have a drastic dispute, you will quickly lose any effectiveness that invoking the option may have for you. If every drastic dispute is partnership-threatening, then there is really no point in suggesting that the dispute of the moment is partnership-threatening. “Really ?, so were the last 3 big fights we had !”.
I know I am suggesting the impossible, but every time you get into a drastic dispute (and hopefully, if you read, and follow the advice in, Part 2, that will now be very rare) you need to quickly work out if you are in a “standard”, or “normal” (I know, they’re horrible descriptions), drastic dispute, or whether the main issue in dispute is so important to you that an unsatisfactory resolution of it would cause you to leave the partnership. In other words, I am suggesting you try to make a rational decision on an important issue when you will not be feeling rational. If you are able to do that, then you will be able to preserve a potentially powerful way of ending a dispute. And keeping that in reserve for issues that really are vital to your willingness to stay together with your partner is obviously a good thing for the continued health of your partnership.
How to prevent disputes from getting drastic
Most of the advice in this Section is based on a media report that I saw recently. I repeat it here just in case you haven’t come across it elsewhere. The article attributes the following advice to John Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute. The advice is apparently based on 40 years of research that involved filming couples who were asked to resolve a relationship conflict that had arisen between them.
Incidentally, if you are having disputes with your partner that are making either of you uncomfortable, Professor Gottman has written numerous books and articles about how couples can deal with such situations, and much else about relationships as well. If you Google “John Gottman” you will be able to quickly access this material.
So, in all there are 7 bits of advice. I have taken the liberty of adding my own thoughts to this advice:
1. Talk (and walk)
Professor Gottman advises couples to talk regularly, and to talk often. If one of you wants to talk about something that might create friction between you, you should raise the topic when you are in a situation where you can talk, but do not have to have eye to eye contact with each other. Walking together is great for that, as is doing the dishes together. If you are going to have that sort of talk indoors, you also need to make sure that there are no distractions such as children, or blaring TVs or radios or whatever. (By the way, although driving a car qualifies as a non-eye-to-eye activity, it is not the place to have a talk that might cause friction – such talk poses a very significant safety risk.)
The idea behind avoiding eye contact is that it helps to diffuse anxiety, and lessens the chances of aggression and defensiveness developing in response to what is said. I know that that is not the behaviour you see on most TV shows and movies – eye contact seems to be de rigueur. However, Professor Gottman’s advice is apparently based on that 40 years of studying relationships at close quarters that I mentioned earlier.
Even if all is going well between you, it is good to talk to each other for a sustained period (at least 20-30 minutes) on a regular basis. The absolute best way to do that would be to schedule a regular walk, for instance every Monday and Thursday night – it’s great from an exercise point of view, but it’s also a great way of celebrating your togetherness. Even walking in silence beside your partner from time to time is a life-enhancing experience.
Of course it’s pointless to talk unless you are also prepared to listen to what the other person is saying. And listening in this context means hearing and taking in and understanding what the other person is saying. It’s not formulating in your mind what you want to say while the other person is talking. Rather, it’s paying full attention to what is said, understanding it, and then formulating a response.
If you pick up that your partner is raising something that is of concern to them, listening means that you should notice that as soon as it happens. And if it happens, you should let your partner know that you have picked up that they are concerned – you should not ignore it, even if you think it will lead to needing to talk about uncomfortable things. It is important to let your partner know that you care about what they’re feeling.
It is also worth remembering that the reason why your partner is unhappy about something may not be the reason they give for their unhappiness. If you are listening properly and you think that this might be the case, it is your obligation as a listener to try to probe further to see if you can uncover the real reason for the unhappiness. If you are successful in that quest you may save both of you the considerable unnecessary angst and expenditure of psychic energy.
Speaking more generally, each of you should remember that being in a relationship means that you should each be each other’s first point of call when wanting to talk about anything that is of concern to either of you, be it a topic that is related to the 2 of you, or something completely unrelated.
For instance, if either of you is feeling depressed in any way, your partner should be the first person you think of in terms of talking about it.
Similarly, if one of you is having issues at work, the other of you should be the first choice of sounding board about those issues.
And, of course, if you have children, and any issues arise concerning them, you should be talking about those issues with your partner as soon as possible after the issues arise.
3. Try to be as positive as possible
If you have an issue of concern about your relationship that you want to raise with your partner, whether it be a comment, suggestion or complaint, it is best to try to put it forward in as positive a way as you can think of:
“I know you mean well, but I was wondering if …”
“I really like X, but in relation to Y I was wondering if we couldn’t perhaps …”
“Perhaps X is too much of a good thing …”
“I appreciate that X took a lot of effort on your part, but …”
The key thing is to avoid raising something in a way that appears to be critical, or even worse, contemptuous (unless, of course, you are spoiling for a fight).
Similarly if you are responding to a comment, suggestion or complaint from your partner, try to do that as positively as possible:
“I appreciate the feedback, but were you aware …”
“That’s an interesting idea …”
“It hadn’t occurred to me to look at it from that point of view …”
“Sorry, I wasn’t aware …”
The key thing to avoid in responding is anything that suggests defensiveness or stonewalling (again, unless you are spoiling for a fight).
Some further tips when discussing issues with your partner that might result in friction between you:
- try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, and try to see things from their perspective
- try to establish as much common ground as possible
- explore all options fully, even the ones that look completely lame
- be upfront with defects in your own suggestions
- quickly acknowledge any mistakes that you make
- if in discussing an idea of yours it somehow becomes an idea of your partner’s, accept it as such – you’re after the result, not the credit.
4. Strive for equality
Hopefully it is not necessary to recommend that in talking to your partner you do not say or do anything to suggest that you are not equals in your conversation. Sure one of you might know more about a particular thing, but the other of you is bound to know more about something else. I say elsewhere on this website that a partnership should be a mutual admiration society: each partner will have attributes or knowledge that is to be admired, and each partner should do their best to notice and acknowledge those things every chance they get. Suggestions that you know “better” are not going to help you to get anywhere in a discussion with your partner.
Elsewhere on this website I also stress the importance of having respect for your partner. It is crucial that you show that respect whenever you speak to your partner, but particularly so if you are engaged in a difficult conversation with them. That means doing things like listening (as already discussed) and carefully considering any suggestions or ideas that they put forward.
Whenever you and your partner engage in joint decision-making, the likelihood is that any decision you make will be a compromise. Therefore you can save yourself a lot of worry going into a decision-making session with your partner if you expect that it will end with some sort of compromise. And depending on what you are talking about, it is not a bad thing to keep your perspective as wide as possible. A compromise might mean acceding completely with one partner’s wishes on a particular subject, but acceding completely with the other partner’s wishes on another subject.
When engaged in what might be a difficult discussion, try to bestow way more compliments than criticisms. Professor Gottman actually suggests that you should try to offer 5 times more compliments than criticisms in any discussion that you have.
That might be pretty difficult to do in a discussion, but one thing that you might want to consider is to build up some credits before a discussion. If you develop the habit of complimenting your partner whenever the opportunity arises, that is with no ulterior motive in relation to any discussion you might be having, or might have, when you come to have a difficult discussion those previous compliments might stand you in good stead. (It’s not a bad thing to do as a general practice in any event, by the way.)
And, of course, complimenting your partner is really part and parcel of your duties as a member of the mutual admiration society that you are in. And, if complimenting is a novel activity for you, I can advise that it is also an activity that is extremely good for both your health, and that of your partner. The act of giving and receiving compliments releases all sorts of desirable things (with apologies for the technical language) in the brains of both the compliment giver and the compliment receiver. In one way or another (again, please excuse the technical language) it will make you feel noticeably better in the way that philanthropy also does.
And while I’m in this space, could I also give a shout-out to the importance of providing your partner with positive feedback. I strongly recommend that you thank your partner for everything and anything that they do for you, regardless of how often they do it, or how inconsequential it might seem to be. (That’s also great advice if you are a boss, by the way, with respect to your employees; or if you are a human, with respect to other humans.) Saying thanks is a quick and easy way of conveying respect to another person.
(And what’s the difference between a compliment and positive feedback ? There doesn’t necessarily have to be a difference. A compliment does require that you say something complimentary. With positive feedback, the main thing is to simply recognise that something has been done that did not necessarily have to be done. If it was done well, and you acknowledge that, then it is effectively a compliment. If you just acknowledge that something was done, I still call that positive feedback, even though, strictly speaking, it’s really neutral feedback.)
I know that there is a school of thought that mothers don’t need to be thanked for doing what all mothers have to do, and that employees shouldn’t be thanked for just doing what they are paid to do, etc. etc., but I have always pitied those who belong to that school of thought. It demonstrates a meanness of spirit that suggests that those who possess it can’t really be happy with their lives. (Having said that, I am aware that such attitudes are culturally engrained in those of particular geographical cultures, and as such, are not easily shifted.)
You might be wondering, all of what I have said sounds wonderful in theory, but isn’t it asking too much of an ordinary person ? For instance, talking of an ordinary person, do I practise what I am preaching in this Section ?
Believe it or don’t, I certainly try to, and I am reasonably confident that most people that know me would be prepared to agree that I give lots of thanks and compliments.
If what I have suggested above doesn’t accord with your normal practices to date, but you might be interested in giving it a go, can I suggest that you start small. Try to offer thanks once a day for something that someone has done for you. After a while, try to do it twice a day, then a while after that … (I think you get the idea). The same applies with compliments.
And, by the way, sort of contrary to what I said earlier, because this is real life, giving compliments can be problematic. Some people can’t handle them, and that can result in awkward moments. There is also the chance of botching a compliment (for instance, complimenting the wrong person, or complimenting someone about the wrong thing). It can happen, but the risk is small enough that it shouldn’t stop you from doing it.
Giving thanks is usually a safer thing to do, but I was once badly stabbed in the back at work (figuratively, of course), because I insisted that we publicly celebrate some outstanding work that one of my direct reports had carried out. For some reason they weren’t happy that that was done, and that resulted in them making a false allegation against me on an unrelated matter, which fortunately was easily shown to be false. However, such an experience would be very rare, so again it shouldn’t stop you from thanking people.
And what if you starting throwing compliments and thank yous at your partner, but nothing comes back at you ? That’s real life, too, I’m afraid. First, please don’t make compliments, or say thanks, in the expectation that you will receive the same in return. Such expectations instantly undermine the sincerity of your effort, and you would be better off not even making the attempt in the first place if that is your motive. You should look at anything that you receive in return as a bonus, not an expected outcome.
With respect to thank yous, I know from experience that people who are not inclined to give them will not suddenly start handing them out just because they see you doing it. Their practice of not thanking people is usually deeply ingrained in their make-up, and it is not something that is easily changed. And change on something like that can only come from within.
So, if it’s going to be a one-way street, what’s the point ? There’s no easy or glib answer to that. Basically you need to see it as making a psychic contribution to the overall health of your relationship. The stronger that overfall health, the better for each of the parties to the relationship.
Of course, every once in a while, you are perfectly entitled to take a step back and do a quick and rough assessment of the respective psychic contributions of each of you to your relationship. (If doing this, it is vital that you recognise that there are an almost infinite number of ways that a psychic contribution can be made to a relationship, so you should not just be looking at compliments and thanks when conducting your assessment – really anything that either of you does that contributes to your relationship as a partnership has to be included in the assessment.) If there is a severe ongoing imbalance, you might need to consider whether remaining in the relationship is the best thing for you.
If you are having a difficult discussion with your partner, and it seems to you that is heading off into a sort of negativity that is going to be difficult to come back from, if possible try to say or do something that defuses the situation. Easier said than done, I know. Professor Gottman refers to attempting to defuse situations as “repairing” them.
Of course, in recommending that you try to repair a discussion, I am not suggesting that you should back off from any position that you are putting forward. Rather, if it looks as if trying to get acceptance of that position directly is going to be a problem, repairing means putting things on hold for a moment. Doing that might enable you to come up with another way of putting your position forward that might have a better chance of success than the approach that you were previously trying.
Most of the tips I mentioned at item 3 (Try to be as positive as possible) can also be useful when trying to repair a discussion, or to approaching an issue from a different direction.
Unfortunately the concept of repairing a situation is of limited use if there is an issue of importance between you and your partner on which you are diametrically opposed, and which can only be decided one way or the other. These issues have to be dealt with. If a bullet has to be bitten, bite it ! It is unhealthy to your relationship if an issue like this keeps getting put off.
The trick is to try to deal with the issue as soon as possible and as calmly and rationally as possible. That involves fully exploring all of the arguments for and against each option, and how you will each be affected by each option, and each of you understanding and acknowledging how you will each be affected by each option.
Issues such as this will test your liking and respect for each other to the limit. They are why I say elsewhere that like and respect are vital to the health of a relationship. And, of course, if there is love, that might also be severely tested.