Have you heard the term “new relationship energy”? It’s that “high” you feel at the beginning of a romantic union…it’s almost like your partner has been sprinkled with pixie dust and everything they do or say feels magical to you.
This “high” is caused by a neurotransmitter (dopamine) in your brain which I’m not qualified to explain—but the important thing to know is that this intense positive feeling typically fades within two years. That’s biology.
So what happens when you shift from “new” love to “older” love? Well, lots of positives that come from a stable relationship—but perhaps more conflicts too when that “new relationship energy” wears off, and you realize your partner isn’t “perfect”. That’s normal.
Some couples can weather conflict storms. Others get blown off course. In the decades I’ve been married I’ve learned the right ways and the wrong ways to deal with conflict. Here’s my take.
The Wrong Way: Make Everything An Issue
The Right Way: Pick Your Battles
There are many landmines in longer-term relationships. It’s hard not to feel grumpy if you think your partner is slacking on the housework, spending too much money, or working too late at the office. Unless you are in a relationship with your clone, it’s impossible to agree on everything. Unfortunately, the more you nag, the less your partner takes your nagging seriously, or just gets fed up with the constant criticism.
Rather than making everything an issue, pick your battles wisely. Tolerance is one of the most important virtues as a partner. It’s easy to love our partners for their good qualities but it’s even more important to embrace their less desirable ones. Rather than only focus on what you expect from your partner (and how they are not measuring up to your expectations), consider what they expect of you too.
The Wrong Way: Attack
The Right Way: Listen
The primitive part of our brains—the amygdala—is wired to pick up “danger” like threatening words (“You are crazy”) or faces (a scowl) triggering the hypothalamus to release chemicals into our bodies to fight, flee or freeze. So if your partner feels like they are being attacked by your words or body language, they will…any guesses? This is not a good foundation on which to resolve conflict in a healthy way.
You’ve heard the proverb: God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak. Staying calm, actively listening, and asking insightful questions to understand your partner’s point of view is a much better strategy than exploding (which only escalates conflict). Remember not to interrupt your partner constantly to make your point because arguing with your partner should not be a debate. You are not each other’s adversaries, so deal with conflict from a place of mutual respect and collaboration. Conflict doesn’t have to be nasty.
The Wrong Way: Win At All Costs
The Right Way: Play Fair
It’s not great for a relationship when partners want to “win” an argument at all costs by playing dirty. This could include, for example name calling (“You are evil”), exaggerating (“You never listen”) or bullying the other into submission. Sure, you may win the battle, but do you really want to lose the war by making your partner resent you?
Playing fair means accepting responsibility for your own part in the conflict, and saying “sorry”; it means not exploiting your partner’s vulnerabilities (“No wonder your ex left you”) or wanting to “fight” when your partner is exhausted and isn’t in any shape to listen to your complaints. Fighting fair means being specific about the issue (“I am upset that you didn’t let me know you would be an hour late”) rather than generalizing (“You never respect my time”). Fighting fair means not comparing them to someone else (“Sally’s boyfriend always buys her roses”). Fighting fair means reassuring your partner that you are on their side, and committed to figuring out a healthy compromise.
The Wrong Way: Dredge Up The Past
The Right Way: Focus On The Future
Reminding your partner of their past failings by saying things like, “Be nice to my mother. Remember how rude you were to her last time she visited,” is not helpful. No one can turn back the hands of time and undo their past failings. Plus, it’s hard to like a partner who is always “keeping score”.
Rather than dredging up what went “wrong” in the past, focus instead on when things went “right”—perhaps there was a time when your partner said something sweet to your mother? Explore why things went right, and use this as a starting point to figure out how to recreate more of that in the future. It’s easier to figure out a solution going forward than fix the past (“My mom’s coming to visit. I know it’s hard for you to get along. How can we make her feel welcome, and you less annoyed with her?”) Isn’t creative and collaborative problem-solving the key to a successful relationship?
Every couple deals with conflict at some point. How we deal with it can either break us or make our relationship stronger. Are there any “wrong” ways you are dealing with conflict today that you can turn into “right” ways tomorrow?