Don't fear fights ― Healthy conflict is good for your relationship!

Disagreements are inevitable in a relationship and resolving these with compassion and respect for each other can help couples reconnect.

Fighting couple

You may not like to disagree or argue with your other half, but it probably happens anyway.

Truth is, when you disagree, it’s an opportunity to express your emotions and needs. It can also help strengthen communication and deepen your emotional connection with your spouse.

Explains psychotherapist and Relationship Matters director Jean Chen, “When the husband and wife feel closer to each other, their relationship experiences more happiness, trust, openness, physical intimacy, and fewer misunderstandings.”

Noting that the couples she has worked with have a deep bond with each other, Dr Jessie Chua, a senior clinical psychologist with Resilienz, says they are willing to work together to manage problems together or at least attempt establishing a compromise as they understand that they  are unique individuals with different life experiences.

She points out, “They feel safe speaking their mind, exploring different ideas and opinions in order to create a new bond or connection. They speak positively of their friendship and would blush or giggle when talking about romantic gestures or silly antics, despite having been married for years.”

“They do not raise their voice at each other. They understand they have different problem-solving styles… They have strong communication skills and see themselves as a team working towards a common goal, so little or no intervention is required from those outside the unit.”  

Chen notes that the process of conveying your needs and preferences, as well as taking turns to give in to your spouse and appreciating each other’s efforts, are valuable to a marriage, even if such disagreements are expressed with a tinge of irritation or anger.  

A communication breakdown between couples, she maintains, comes about because of what American psychologist Dr John Gottman calls the “4 Horseme” ― criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

To manage conflict in a healthy way, Dr Chua, advises that couples learn to express their differences calmly and respectfully.

“They do not raise their voice at each other. They understand they have different problem-solving styles. They accept there is no definitive way to arrive at solutions or compromise. They have strong communication skills and see themselves as a team working towards a common goal, so little or no intervention is required from those outside the unit.”  

What you are likely to disagree over
Dr Chua singles out the main areas where conflict can arise:

  1. Different parenting styles and discipline methods For example, strict dad vs permissive mum, father prefers to cane while mother would rather reason with their offspring. 
  2. Perceived inequality between distribution of chores Are you irritated about having to cook, clean, do laundry, shop for groceries and fetch the kids to school or tuition?
  3. Personal needs Do you, for instance, feel physical intimacy or emotional closeness is lacking between the both of you? 
  4. Different stress management styles While dad seeks solace in his electronic devices to cope with stress, mum is left to resolve issues on her own.
  5. Affairs When an affair happens, each spouse typically believes his or her version of why it happened as the most accurate.

Chen notes that couples are more distressed over how to communicate these parenting style differences than over their opposing methods. She cites a scenario where a couple argue about whether their son should watch soccer with his father:  

Husband: “Son, let’s watch soccer together tonight!”

Wife: “Son, don’t watch soccer! Don’t be like your daddy ― he is a soccer addict!”

Husband: “Okay, whatever.” (sighs, shakes his head and walks away.)  

“The wife is seeking loving attention from her husband,” explains Chen about the communication breakdown. She hopes that he would spend time with her instead. She doesn’t want their son to watch soccer because she doesn’t want him to be like his father in this respect.

She adds, “The husband would want to spend time with his wife if she didn’t express unhappiness with him while they are together. He remains quiet because he feels nothing he says will change her mind.”

 

Happy family

How unhealthy conflict affects your relationship with each other
When your affection or admiration for each other declines, so do your feelings of trust and friendship.

Dr Chua sums up, “Couples no longer talk to each other and become emotionally disconnected.”

When feelings aren’t clearly communicated any longer and you feel that your spouse does not support you during times of crisis, the relationship starts to break down. You are no longer confident that problems can be resolved properly.

Dr Chua points out, “There is no way to predict how your spouse will react to a conflict. He can compromise on some matters but may suddenly fight fiercely over other matters.”

Couples may also feel that their own needs are not met, and turn to external parties to soothe feelings of hurt, resentment and disappointment.

Denying each other’s emotional experiences worsen the problem. So, apologise when you know your action has hurt your spouse, or when the hurt has been clearly conveyed to you.  

How unhealthy conflict affects your relationship with your kids
When parents cannot resolve arguments responsibly, their kids may feel confused and helpless because they don’t know whom they can rely on for help on issues like homework.

Dr Chua notes, “If a child seeks out her parents’ attention during or after their fight, and often experiences anger, resentment and rejection, she learns she cannot count on them with her feelings… Refusing to engage her parents entirely, she may become ‘rebellious’, ‘cold’, and ‘rude’.”

It is therefore necessary that parents reconnect emotionally with each other after a conflict, Chen says. Complete agreement or meeting on middle ground, however, is not always required. 

“This is because the decisions taken can be based on individual preferences. Both can always agree to disagree, as long as the emotional connection is not broken,” she explains. “Keeping the connection tight means each spouse has a firm experiential knowledge of being loved, so is more likely to be able to give in and make sacrifices happily.” 

9 ways to fight positively

Dr Chua works with couples to draw up a list of rules to ensure that any conflict stays healthy, “With this list, couples can pick out or modify those that apply to their relationship.”

#1 Agree to disagree ― Understand that you can never achieve total consensus on solving an issue.

#2 Write it down ― Taking notes about what is being discussed allows you to listen actively and prevents you from jumping to conclusions. 

#3 Check for accuracy ― Before every reply, summarise what was said. This helps reduce misunderstanding and miscommunication.

#4 Speak calmly ― Don’t yell, criticise or make snarky comments. 

#5 Take turns to speak ― Avoid interrupting when your spouse is talking. Give each other one or two minutes to speak.

#6 Meet every day ― Schedule a regular time to catch up with each other on daily activities. This helps to prevent issues from accumulating over time.

#7 Prepare to pause ― When you start to feel overwhelmed, ask for a timeout of 20 minutes. During this time, try to get your heart rate and blood pressure back to normal. Otherwise, resume the dialogue later.

#8 Accept responsibility ― Denying each other’s emotional experiences worsen the problem. So, apologise when you know your action has hurt your spouse, or when the hurt has been clearly conveyed to you.  

#9 Use “I” ― Statements such as “I feel sad when you ignore my calls” make it easier to communicate the effect of an action on you. They are also less accusatory.    

Photos: iStock

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