A core challenge in relationships is how to be both deeply generous with your partner while simultaneously being your own fierce self-advocate. Even the healthiest couples have the age old fight about whose needs are more important. And nobody likes to fight, but…
The reality is that creating a life with another human is infinitely challenging and that there’s no way to avoid fights along the way. Numerous conflicts and hurt feelings will naturally emerge. These may involve differences around life goals, emotional needs, varying strategies to life’s challenges, and alternating views on reality itself.
Healthy relationships require skillful and loving collaboration. Perhaps an alternative to a couple saying “we fight well” is “we negotiate our differing needs well.” What follows is an exploration of skills helpful in cultivating self-awareness, emotional maturity, and the ability to play well with others.
“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict” Dorothy Thompson
1. Anger Management
Book Suggestion: “Mindfulness for Anger Management” by Stephen Dansiger
- Protect others from yourself- Minimize aggressive tone of voice, statements, and body language which may be threatening to partner. Learn to monitor your stress levels. Disengage when anger is too high to communicate respectively and productively.
- Understand why you’re angry- Identify triggers such as perceived lack of justice, fairness, respect, agency, communication, trust, safety, etc.
- Self-regulation- Know how to soothe yourself and come back into self-regulation quickly.
2. Assertive Communication
Book Suggestion: “Non-Violent Communication: Life Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships” by Marshall B. Rosenberg
- Focus on needs and emotions- This is what really matters. Needs and emotions are primary. Thoughts and intellect are just the tip of the iceberg. By acknowledging that the root of conflict is needs-based you can communicate in a way that is effective in getting what you want.
- Learn about word choice- Word choice focused on your partner’s behavior often implies blame, judgement, and harshness. This puts your partner on the defensive and ready for a counter-attack. Put the spotlight on yourself. Make “I-statements” rather than “you-statements.” When you self-disclose about your internal world you are setting a tone of vulnerability and generosity which will be returned in kind.
- Take responsibility for your own needs- No one really knows what you experience and desire except yourself. Healthy adults don’t expect others to be mind readers, anticipate their needs, or wait to be taken care of.
- Invite don’t complain- Nobody likes to hear a list of what they did wrong or hear their partner complain. Rather than focusing on the negative thing you don’t want to happen again, identify the positive thing you do want and describe it to your partner in detail. Coax them with them same warm tone you’d send someone a party invitation. The same sentiment of “come on in, the water’s fine.” Give your partner reasons on why what you’re asking for will be better for both of you.
3. Understand Attachment Styles
- Avoidant, ambivalent, and secure attachment- In childhood you adapt to the emotional landscape created by parents and family. These adaptations guide behavior in your primary relationships as an adult, especially when stressed. The avoidantly attached use dismissal and distance to cope with stress in relationship. Ambivalently attached folks use talking (often complaining) and seek contact to cope with stress. Securely attached may use a combination of both but are generally more stable, secure, and successful in relationship.
- Become an expert on your partner- Have an owner’s manual for your partner stored in your grey matter. Know what brings them utter joy, what hurts them more than anything, and know why based on their past. Be able to recall what pains they went through in their family, because that bruising is still there to work through with sensitivity.
- Tailor your behavior to fit partner’s attachment style- Partners need to train each other on their unique sensitivity and challenges in relationship. Avoidantly attached tend to need help not feeling intruded or demanded upon by their partner. Ambivalently attached tend to need help not feeling rejected or devalued.
- Create a couple bubble- Co-regulation is an experience happy couples have often. It’s the use of affection, sensitivity and care for one another to create a regulated state in both partners’ autonomic nervous systems. The ‘couple bubble’ is a metaphor for maintaining a sphere of protection, care, and connection as much as possible, with quick repair to ruptures.
4. Identify Defense Patterns
Book Suggestion: “The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work” by Terrence Real
- Minimize the 5 strategies that don’t work- The most common losing strategies are: Needing to be right, control, unbridled self-expression, retaliation, and withdrawal. Maximize the winning strategies which include shifting from complaint to request, advocating for yourself with love, respond to your partner generously, empower each other, and cherish what is already present.
- Define what boundary violations mean for your couple- These may include yelling, name-calling, diagnosing your partner, shaming, breaking agreements, controlling, and lying.
- Realize why you resist change- Letting go of defenses and trying again opens you up to further disappointment. Also, actually experiencing intimacy can be uncomfortable. You may crave closeness, only to realize how new, strange, and unsettling it can feel when your partner finally offers it.
- Do the opposite- Reclaim and prioritize romantic space. Make face-to-face time exciting by trusting each other with the truth. Become experts at sharing your emotional lives together. Master the art of cherishing your partner through positive feedback. Become partners in health by committing to learning relationship technology together.
5. Nurture Deep Friendship
Book Suggestion: “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: by Jon Gottman
- Nurture fondness and admiration- Remember why you’re together. Consistently make affectionate deposits into your relationship’s emotional bank account. Amplify positive qualities. Know how to have fun even in the grind of the week.
- Let your partner influence you- Equalize power and decision making. Demonstrate you value your partner’s input, feedback, and intelligence, even if you disagree. Be a team worth being on.
- Turn towards not away- Be emotionally aware enough to detect ‘bids’ or signals for desired contact from your partner. Bids may include participating in conversation, responding to requests for help, choosing to chat and share about your day, etc. Turn towards these bids, even if it’s to kindly say “can’t now, but would like to later.”
- Enhance love maps- Become interested in your partner’s emotional world. Know it through and through. Remember major events in their past, and future life goals, passions, hopes, fears, and dreams. It takes effort and repetition to really understand and remember your partner.
The happiest couples adopt a growth mindset when it comes to their relationship. These books provide language, structure, and theory for learning skills which support thriving partnerships. There is some overlap between them in regards to concepts and approaches, so you can’t go wrong. Enlist your partner to study with you and become relationship experts together.