From trivial matters like leaving the toilet seat up at your apartment to bigger issues like flirting with other people at parties, quarreling with your other half is inevitable. When emotions run high, things can take a turn for the worse and build up to the question of if you should just let go of the relationship. But not all conflict has to be destructive—there’s actually a productive way to work through it! We spoke with Heidi Nguyen, a marriage and family therapist, to understand the steps you need to follow to resolve a conflict with your SO—without having to shout or have your mascara run down your face.
Step 1: Consider the timing
First, you have to decide if the issue is worth confronting at all. In relationships, you often have to pick your battles.
Nguyen says to ask yourself, “Is it more important to have [this] relationship, or is it more important to be right?” If you think there’s a possibility of a loving, fulfilling relationship, and you want that, then make the choice to resolve the conflict.
Before you communicate your concerns to your SO, consider your mood and the atmosphere you and your SO are in. “Don’t wait until you are really fed up with the situation and about to explode,” Nguyen says. Bring it up in a calm, private conversation. If you’re at a party with a bunch of your friends and your SO, that’s not the best time to bring it up. Instead, try broaching the subject during a one-on-one dinner or on a walk.
Step 2: Keep your emotions in check
Nguyen says the first thing to do at the sign of a fight is calm down. “Take a time-out, take a deep breath—something to keep your emotions in check.” Our natural tendency is to scream, attack and defend our own position, but if you want to productively resolve a conflict, you must take a step back and refrain from letting your emotions cloud your perception of the situation.
When you feel anxiety, anger or frustration taking over, Nguyen does not suggest walking away. “Walking away and not saying anything will lead the other person feeling rejected,” she says. “[Tell your SO] you just need time to calm down.”
If tensions are too high and you walk away, give your SO the heads up and tell them you need to clear your head before you continue the conversation—be specific about how much time you’ll need.
Step 3: Emphasize your needs and view the conflict objectively
Once you’ve calmed down, Nguyen says to consider your SO’s point of view while also owning your needs. “Rationally think about the goal, then approach communication in a way that’s consistent with that goal,” she advises.
Let’s say your goal is to have a more romantic relationship. It’s your birthday, and you’re waiting for your other half to arrive at the restaurant where you two will have a celebratory dinner. He shows up empty-handed, and you’re extremely hurt that he didn’t bring a birthday gift for you.
Though you’re internally upset, Nguyen says the best thing to do is take a deep breath and greet him how you normally would. Don’t let your anger influence you to cancel the date and storm off—that would mean you’re acting solely on emotions, which will hinder productive resolution.
After you’ve calmed down, casually bring up the fact that he didn’t meet your romantic needs. From there, Nguyen stresses that “your goal is to inquire—not tear him down, attack him or belittle him—whether he wants to work on being more romantic so that you can have a fulfilling relationship.”
It could be that you were raised to believe that sentimental gifts display love, or that in all your past relationships, that was your way of feeling loved. Whatever the reasoning behind your need is, express it to your SO. You could say, “I would’ve felt so loved and cared for if I got flowers from you on my birthday.” Use statements that begin with “I” such as, “I feel like…” or, “I think that…” That way, your SO will have an opportunity to respond or agree with your feelings. Chances are, Nguyen says, he will respond positively to your honesty.
Step 4: Find common ground
“With communication, the goal is to either accommodate him or for him to accommodate your needs. If that isn’t working out and [you] both get emotionally charged up again, then the goal is to agree to disagree,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen shares that being able to agree to disagree depends on the situation. “If it’s a belief, like religion—he’s Catholic and you’re Buddhist—you can agree to disagree,” she explains. “But if the situation is personally affecting the relationship, like there’s another girl involved, then [agreeing to disagree] is unrealistic. It would be like living with an elephant in the room.”
Nguyen urges to take into consideration your SO’s concerns, needs and perspectives within the context of the conflict. Find common ground, and then, if possible, compromise.
To sort the compromise, you have to be open and honest, but most importantly, you have to communicate. “Don’t interrupt; let each other talk, listen for the other’s perspective,” Nguyen says. “Then, wait until the person finishes to respond. Even go as far as to reflect back [what they said].” By repeating your SO’s words to him or her, you’re sending a signal that he or she is being heard, and it gives your partner a chance to repeat him or herself in case your interpretation of what he or she said isn’t accurate.
“If we put thought into what the goal is, there’s a way we can get it,” Nguyen says. “But if your emotions get in the way and you’re not mindful of the goal, [the result] usually comes out destructively.”
Nguyen believes that it’s not a confrontation so much as it is a discussion or a communication, bringing a conflict to attention so that it can be resolved.
Knowing how to handle a conflict with your SO can tremendously benefit your relationship. Don’t forget, collegiettes: conflict doesn’t have to be confrontational! And, most importantly, don’t let your emotions take control of the situation. Breathe in, breathe out and work it out!