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The two big mistakes couples make when they try to resolve conflict

Here’s a typical argument in a relationship:

Partner A (we’ll say they’re a woman), exasperated, says to Partner B (we’ll say they’re a man; of course either one could be a man or woman) that she’s tired of feeling like she takes care of all the kids’ necessities, like making their breakfast and their school lunches every day, making sure they have their back to school supplies, buying them clothes when they need them, arranging their extracurriculars like sports and lessons, et cetera.

Partner B responds by saying “What are you talking about?! I take the kids to the pool, I take them to the movies, I play with them all the time! And more than you I might add!” Within a minute, both partners are upset at the other, and the chance of success in making progress on this issue is much lower.

Nonetheless, now they are locked in an argument. Let’s see how this plays out.

Partner A, trying to be constructive, says “What I need you to do is to take more responsibility for the stuff that needs to happen, not just the fun stuff that you want to do!” Partner B responds “What makes you think I don’t care about the stuff that needs to happen! The fact is, you don’t even let me do that stuff. I’d do it if you actually trusted me to do it. But you don’t, because you think you’re the only capable one around here.”

Yeesh, not looking good so far, right?

We’ve now seen what I think are the two biggest mistakes that I see when couples are deadlocked in conflict.

The first is that Partner B is defending himself instead of addressing Partner A’s concern. It makes perfect sense, Partner B is trying to convince Partner A that he really is a good, thoughtful, caring person. Who wouldn’t do that. But as much as this is our instinct, it doesn’t end up helping in these situations. What Partner A really wants is to know that Partner B is responsive to her concerns. In other words, instead of Partner B telling her he’s a caring partner, Partner A (and Partner B in turn, too) benefits from Partner B showing her instead, by listening and acknowledging the reality of her feelings.

Partner A isn’t off the hook though.

The second big mistake is that Partner A tries to move towards solutions too quickly. This is something that Partner B, in a typical argument, might also be guilty of as well, even though I didn’t highlight it in my example. This pressure to agree on solutions before both partners understand what the fundamental issues are hinders the ability to come up with solutions that both will find satisfactory.

Instead, try having a conversation where there is less pressure to offer the right solution. If both partners feel like they have a chance to verbalize their viewpoints and their emotions about the situation, and that their partner understands them fully before trying to hammer out a way forward, both partners will likely feel more satisfied.

In this example, it might turn out that Partner A had a hidden concern that she didn’t get to do enough fun stuff with the kids because she was too exhausted from doing all the stuff that had to get done. And Partner B also seems to feel like he wants to be trusted more in the relationship. But trying to power through the disagreement by offering solutions would sweep all these concerns aside, and the underlying problems would still be there, leading to some conflict in the future. But if these concerns come out in a nonjudgmental environment, the solutions will be more likely to address these very real and legitimate desires of each partner.

It can be hard to recognize these patterns. And even if you do recognize them, it can be hard to follow through with a new approach to working through them. Some coaching from a couples therapist can be helpful in these situations. But even without that, you can try to reshape your conflicts into something more successful by trying to avoid these two mistakes.

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