Question: Conflicts with my partner often go from blaming each other to saying very hurtful things. How can we be more constructive in these situations?
That’s a great question. Firstly I want to say that everybody has conflicts. There are always some conflicts in relationships and if you don’t have them, it usually tends to suggest that you are not bringing your full self into the relationship, that you are either avoiding conflict or you are denying that there are any. Conflicts are actually very good because from them you can grow as a person and as a couple, so some conflict is definitely healthy.
Secondly you say that your conflicts are going from blaming each other into saying very hurtful things. This happens because we get on to the back foot. We go from trying to express our needs hoping that they will be met, into demanding. There is a sense of urgency with getting our needs met. Maybe you feel like you already know that the person doesn’t want to meet those needs. It’s almost like you have already decided what that person is going to say and how they’re going to respond to the situation.
So how do we go into more constructive space in those situations of conflict, rather than blaming and saying hurtful things? How can you actually NOT do that? How can you constructively change the situation?
Remember that the person might not actually say those horrible things because they are true. They might say them because that’s how they feel you are perceiving them. It’s good to keep in mind that those hurtful things are not necessarily about you. It might be how they feel about the situation and how powerless they feel.
The first thing I would do is to start asking the person clarifying questions.
Don’t get sucked into the tennis game of blaming each other and saying hurtful things. Move from your defensive position to asking questions, so the other person feels heard. People often just feel offensive or even defensive when they don’t feel heard. Approach your partner and say that you can see why they might feel that way. If you are not sure why, ask them to tell you more about what makes them feel offended, so that you can understand where they are coming from.
While it is not your job to make people feel heard all the time, it’s a good approach in taking those first steps in conflict situations towards a happier relationship.
The second part is to own the things that are actually true.
Next time when you are in a conflict, just step back and ask yourself if it’s actually true what your partner says. Are you actually doing those things? Do you need to own a part of that? And take it from there.
These two approaches tend to disarm the other person and that in turn tends to stop the hurtful things going back and forth. They open up the whole situation and really clear out any bad feelings and bring you to a lot more constructive space within your conflict.
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