What's the secret to a successful relationship? Two marriage and family experts say it all comes down to how you fight. Clinical psychologist and author, Daphne de Marneffe and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, Bill Doherty had 12 tips for perfecting the art of constructive conflict.
1) You need to commit to working it out if you want it to work out.
Doherty and de Marneffe said the key to a good relationship comes down to a strong commitment to working through a lot of difficult emotions.
"The best marriages involve people who can deal with strong negative emotions — and who are clear-eyed about how hard it can be," de Marneffe said.
2) A conflict-free relationship is not a good thing.
It's a common misconception to think that if you're not fighting, you're in a good place. Not so. "Couples who avoid conflict — they avoid intimacy," Doherty said, "Constructive conflict builds loyalty to a relationship."
You can't avoid conflict because it's painful, de Marneffe said. "You have to work through these emotions to feel close."
3) Learn how to process your emotions and communicate well.
De Marneffe often talks to couples who find themselves re-hashing the same argument repeatedly over the course of many years. The key to a good, constructive fight, she said, is to realize the problem isn't the issue or the person you're fighting with. The problem is how you communicate and how you handle your own emotions.
"To find a way to be fulfilled in a long-term relationship, you're going to have to reckon with your own emotional life," de Marneffe said. "If you're really going to find a way to be satisfied with another person, it starts with yourself."
4) Learn how to de-escalate.
Over-heated emotions and conflict often go hand-in-hand. But Doherty said when too much emotion enters the conflict, it stops being constructive: "Once you get flooded emotionally your cerebral cortex goes off and it's sort of like two spinal cords talking to each other."
5) Timing is everything.
Mark, a caller from Minneapolis said he and his wife limit the time they allow an argument to go on:
"We've learned to set a timer for 15 minutes," he said. "The longer it goes on, the more destructive it becomes. (We take a break and) we come back to it and the second conversation is more productive."
"Don't fight late at night, and don't fight where alcohol is involved," he said. "Don't lose sleep ... Don't fight when you have any kind of impairment because your impulse control is down."
6) Figure out how to step back and calm down in emotional disagreements.
Tesla from Winona said she and her partner have a phrase they like to use when a fight starts getting emotionally out of control:
"You're getting a little intense. I'm having a hard time hearing you."
Using that phrase reminds them that out-of-control emotions only make the other person feel attacked and defensive. And, Tesla said, "We understand that when we get on the defensive, we stop listening."
Dave from Aiken said he and his wife usually walk away from each other after they have a disagreement. Then, after they've cooled off, they come back to the kitchen table for a little ritual:
"We put a palm up and say, 'OK, this is what I think, this is what I feel.' The other one of us will take the hand and say, 'OK, this is what I think, this is what I feel.'"
Dave said this helps them get out what they want to say and really listen and understand what the other person is thinking.
7) Take the time to process things after a disagreement is over.
According to Doherty, the most important part of a conflict happens after the conversation is over.
"The starting point is how you process the fight afterwards," Doherty said, "If you process it in terms of how difficult my spouse was ... you've just compounded it, as opposed to asking yourself, 'What was I feeling? What was my experience in this? What insecurity did it bring up?' ... and, 'How then may I have contributed to this?'"
8) Agree on the rules of engagement before the conflict even starts.
It helps to agree as a couple about how conflict should be handled before a fight even starts.
"Have some sort of open, accepting, curious compassionate space between you where you can try to uncover your emotions together," de Marneffe said.
9) Let go of the idea that there's such a thing as a soul mate.
Worrying about whether you've met your soul mate is not helpful, and often harmful.
De Marneffe agreed.
"I think soul mates are created," she said. "The work is being emotionally vulnerable. It's showing up and being present and struggling together to deepen your intimacy. That is what I believe creates a soul mate."
10) Make time for conflict.
A lot of people make time for their job and for exercise, but they don't make time for emotional processing. De Marneffe thinks that's a mistake.
"Both (people in a relationship) need to have their partner feel with them and then think about the problem ... We need a space here to know what each other feels," de Marneffe said. "Both things are important to feel you're in a loving interaction."
11) Remain positive.
"Discipline yourself to never say anything contemptuous," Doherty said, "You can be fully expressive without putting the person down."
Another key is to affirm your partner's strengths.
"Some people are not so good at internal emotional processing," Doherty said. "Look for what your partner is bringing that may not be that: their commitment, their love, their loyalty ... If you don't look for all of the ways that somebody brings love to you then you can start to feel superior."
12) Bonus: Read these helpful books on conflict:
• 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage by John Gottman
• The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together by Daphne de Marneffe
• Bill Doherty — Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.
For more information on Doherty's "Better Angels" project, visit its website.
• Daphne de Marneffe — a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of "The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together."
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