By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
It may seem obvious to some, but not all, that the best relationships are ones born out of trust and vulnerability. Each partner approaches one another as an equal. The relationship does not drain its participants: instead it nourishes. Differences between partners are complementary. These differences are advantageous and desirable and do not create a hindrance to the relationship; instead they contribute to its growth. In a healthy relationship, partners draw out untapped possibilities in one another. So why does it seem so hard to maintain a blissful state of love with a partner over time?
First of all, every relationship has its ups and downs, and conflict comes with the territory. Yet as a daughter of divorce you may avoid conflict because it may have signified the end of your parents’ marriage. Marriage counselor, Michele Weiner Davis explains that avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. She posits that bottling up negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t give your partner a chance to change their behavior. On the other hand, she cautions that one of the secrets of a good marriage or romantic relationship is learning to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and important ones.
Elizabeth’s Mother’s Day story provides a good example of a hot-button issue that needed to be resolved. Newlyweds Elizabeth and Zane have three children and have been in a committed relationship for many years. One year, Zane picked up a quick Mother’s Day gift for her at a gas station, and Elizabeth’s feelings were deeply hurt. Because she placed great value on Mother’s Day, Elizabeth decided to take a risk and show her vulnerability to Zane by expressing her disappointment. Since then, Zane has faithfully purchased a special Mother’s day gift every year, and Elizabeth feels valued and loved by him.
Secondly, it’s important to stop keeping score and to try not to win every argument, even when you’re in the right. Instead, author Pat Love says, “think of winning an unofficial contest I like to call ‘Who’s the Bigger Person? Resolving Conflicts is about who wants to grow the most and what’s best for your relationship.’ In the beginning of a relationship, couples tend to focus more on their similarities. Yet after awhile, negative projections tend to surface and your partner may remind you of someone from your past. This may explain why some couples who seemed so compatible when they first get together, have more conflicts as time goes by.
Lauren, age 32, explains how identifying her part in communication breakdowns with her husband, Paul, helped save her marriage. “In the past, I used to focus on what Paul was doing wrong until a good friend reminded me that I may want to try harder to communicate my feelings to him without blaming him.” Lauren realized that she hadn’t learned healthy ways of resolving conflicts from her parents who divorced when she was twelve, a pivotal age for adolescent development and observing your parents’ relationship patterns.
Like all smart women, Lauren realized that all relationships go through rough patches and that it takes two people to contribute to the difficulties. Since she liked being married overall, Lauren decided to focus more on Paul’s positive qualities – such as being a great father – rather than negative ones. “That’s when I noticed that I had a problem communicating. I expected Paul to know what I wanted without me telling him what I needed. When he failed, I’d punish him with the silent treatment, or blow up. When I let go of my efforts to fix him, and started working on fixing myself, things began to get better,” she says.
The following steps to resolving conflicts and improving communication may be a starting point to building a fulfilling intimate partnership:
Take a risk and deal with hurt feelings – especially if it’s an important issue.
Approach conflict with a problem-solving attitude. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement.
Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements that tend to come across as blameful- such as “I felt hurt when you bought that gift.”
Don’t make threats. Avoid saying things you’ll regret the next day.
Take a short break if you feel overwhelmed or flooded. This will give you time to calm down and collect your thoughts.
Love also means risking occasionally getting your feelings hurt because it’s the price you pay for intimacy. In all intimate relationships there exist conflicting needs for closeness and space. When issues come up with either of those needs, it’s essential that you talk with your partner and find creative ways to make sure you both feel valued and listened to. Taking the time to work on resolving conflicts in a healthy way is hard work but the payoff is tremendous.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Tracy Clifford
Do you want to learn successful ways to resolve conflicts in your intimate relationships? We’d love to hear your questions or concerns. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”