The Art of Mastering Conflict: Can We Talk?

Couples struggle to manage conflict. Many haven’t developed the skills to have difficult conversations about feelings or effectively listen to one another. This difficulty handling conflict can spill over into other aspects of the relationship such as sexual satisfaction, finances and parenting.

By Nicole Wallace, LCMHC

“Every time I say ‘Can we talk?’ My husband gets super defensive. He responds with, ‘What did I do now?’ Then, we end up in an argument.”

 

This is an ongoing theme I hear about from many couples during mental health counseling. Couples struggle to manage conflict. Many haven’t developed the skills to be able to have difficult conversations about feelings or effectively listen to one another. This difficulty handling conflict can spill over into other aspects of the relationship such as sexual satisfaction, finances and parenting.

 

Many times developing new processes can be helpful in developing better conflict management skills and effective communication skills in a relationship. Oftentimes, in couples therapy, I will ask a couple to tell me about one topic they continue to fight about over and over again. During this discussion the couple can usually recite the dialogue verbatim. It is as if they each have a script and are recreating the scene right there in the therapy session.

 

This is because most of us usually follow the same process in addressing a problem. My client leads with ‘can we talk’ which triggers stress in her spouse because he remembers those words leading to other difficult conversations in the past. He in turns responds with a defensive statement. He is probably hoping that she will back down or avoid dealing with him once he becomes defensive. The cycle of conflict then continues in a negative process.

 

The first step for many couples is to accept that conflict will continue to exist, even in healthy relationships. Many of us think that if a relationship is healthy it should be peaceful at all times. This is not true. Healthy relationship will encounter stress because you have one or more people with different points of view.

 

However, having a plan to manage that stress in a positive way is the key to maintaining the relationship in a healthy manner. To develop a healthy relationship both partners must agree on a process and work together to maintain the steps in that process.

The first step for many couples is to accept that conflict will continue to exist, even in healthy relationships. Many of us think that if a relationship is healthy it should be peaceful at all times. This is not true.

- Nicole Wallace

Steps to Setting Up A Process To Handle Conflict:

1. Set the stage

    • Choose a time and day that is calm and distraction free to engage in difficult conversations. My husband works over 40 hours a week. So, we often have to plan our important talks after he has had a nap or some free time to relax.

 

2. Choose words that are not triggering.

    • If you know saying the words ‘can we talk’ has triggered your partner to become defensive in past discussions, look for new words to lead into difficult conversations. “I need to speak about ____________ with you.” Using a direct statement takes the mystery out for your partner and may reduce tension. Also,try asking your partner what they would like you to say when you need to discuss a difficult topic. Letting your partner choose the introduction may help them feel empowered and connected.

 

3. Set a time limit on the conversation.

    • Setting a time limit ensures that everyone gets a break and that difficult conversations which might not have a quick resolution don’t last 2 to 3 hours. I usually recommend 30 to 40 minutes. If there is no resolution, schedule a time to come back to the conversation.

 

4. Focus on the present and reduce flashbacks to past hurts.

    • Focus on the present and what you both can do to move forward. This technique usually makes conversations more productive.

Managing conflict is difficult. It takes practice and patience. If you find that you and your spouse/partner continue to struggle in this area, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional counselor. Having someone guide you through the techniques can be helpful when you are just getting started in building better communication.

 

Nicole Wallace, LCMHC 

Owner/Therapist 

Transformation Counseling & Consulting, PLLC 

(919) 283-6083 

Website: http://www.transformcc10.com 

Instagram: @transformcc10

Nicole is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor with over 20 years experience helping adults and children with overcoming trauma, managing life transitions, and developing coping skills. Nicole specializes in helping women heal from anxiety, depression, trauma, and life transitions. Women are often consumed with providing care to others and sometimes we don’t slow down to address our own needs. She provides a caring, non-judgmental therapeutic environment within her practice with the intention to help women process any past trauma and begin to prioritize their own needs. Nicole is certified in the use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Trauma Focused – Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Cognitive Behavior Therapy teaches an individual to recognize the connection between thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Nicole is founder of Transformation Counseling and Consulting, PLLC.

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