We spoke to Olivia DeBiase, LSW, a licensed social worker in Philadelphia, about welcoming conflict in a relationship and how it can ultimately help couples grow stronger. Olivia works as a therapist for the LGTBQI population. Olivia guides her practice with empathy believing her clients are the writers of their own stories. She utilizes a holistic approach in working with her clients, combining years of experience and training.
What Is Healthy Conflict?
Healthy conflict is when couples are vulnerable and explore their differences in a safe space. In healthy conflict, a couple can work toward a shared goal of compromising or learning to live with each other’s differences without judgment or fear of being rejected. Healthy conflict promotes growth and allows each person to feel validated and heard. Ultimately, it helps the couple feel stronger as a whole. Healthy conflict does not prompt changing one another, but allows for a couple to work out differences and find solutions to strengthen and harmonize the relationship.
Why Is Healthy Conflict Important In Relationships?
Healthy conflict is important and often needed as couples are made up of more than one person. Each person comes from a different background, different family dynamics, and different values. Having healthy conflict allows couples to combine their differences and create new norms.
Tips To Welcome Healthy Conflict
Learn to tell when you are becoming reactive and/or are responding with defensiveness or anger
If this happens, put boundaries in place to avoid unhealthy conflict or verbalizing anger. This can look like taking space to breathe or count or agreeing to put the conflict on a shelf and a set a time and date to revisit the conversation.
If you disagree with your partner that is okay, remember the aim is to cultivate and maintain a healthy and happy relationship. Remind your partner that you care for them despite the conflict. Work to understand where you partner is coming from. The key is to not always show who is right or wrong but instead practice an understanding of where the person is coming from.
Channel your anger elsewhere for a moment
As discussed, conflict is hard to manage at times and it can bring up certain feelings that may not always feel great such as anger, frustration, and/or resentment. Remember, anger can be a motivating emotion and it's important to allow yourself to feel it; if we are feeling anger in our body, maybe spend some time pouring it elsewhere. Go for a run, hit a punching bag, sing a song at the top of your lungs. Allow time and space for the anger to leave your body and come back to the conversation with a fresh take.
Talk it out
This one may seem silly, but there is great value in talking to your partner about conflict (in times of non-conflict) and what can happen if conflict comes up. Sit down and talk with your partner about things that are important to you or “deal breakers.” If one partner shares that name calling is off the table and not welcomed in your conflict, make great efforts to enforce this in times of conflict. Also consider asking your partner “When you get angry, what happens for you?” For example, if one person shares that when they get angry, their palms sweat, heart races, face gets red, take this as a warning sign; if you noticed these signs, it may be time to take a break.
Write it out
If talking it out seems too heavy, try writing out how you are feeling and maybe write out some solutions that feel comfortable for you. Sometimes when we are in the moment, we have a hard time collecting our thoughts, so writing them down can allow you to process your thoughts, feelings, and details of the argument in a different way.
Focus on “I” statements:
In times of conflict or argument, the blame game can feel like the easy way out. In these moments, practice speaking for yourself in what you are feeling and what the experience is like for you. Practicing “I” statements allows more room to focus on the emotional response and less on pointing the finger, which can lead to further defensiveness and agitation.
Activity To Try Out: The Pause Button
In times of non-conflict, create a pause button with your partner. Find something around your space that can serve as a pause button or make one together (have fun and get creative). Keep the button in a neutral space, and when in conflict with your partner, if things are escalating or you find yourself going in circles, practice using your pause button and utilize different coping skills in those moments (breathing, taking a walk, splashing cold water on your face if feeling anxious or angry, journaling what is going on for you in that moment, listening to a mediation, etc.). When you both feel ready to talk it out, try it again.
Remember conflict is necessary and healthy in relationships – as long as both partners feel safe. Working through conflict allows for growth and maturity to occur in a relationship. Be kind and gentle with the relationship, conflict doesn’t mean something is wrong with the individuals in the relationship; it means there is need for discussion and sometimes compromise. The defining part is what you do with the conflict to help you get there.
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