Relationship Conflict Management
The Art of Fair Fighting Part One
Written by Randi Fine
Narcissistic Abuse Awareness and Guidance with Randi Fine
For many of us, relationship conflict management is considered more of a reflex than a skill. But fair fighting is an art form with clear rules to follow.
Conflict between people, especially those in intimate relationships, is normal and healthy. People who spend a significant amount of time together are bound to disagree.
Our response to conflict rarely comes from an objective or factually based point of view but rather a perceived one. Perception, which comes from outside our conscious awareness, is shaped by expectation, experience, and memory.
No two people have had the same life experiences. No two people have the same expectations in every aspect of their relationship. Given their different perspectives, preferences, values and opinions it is inevitable that couples will have conflicts.
The dynamics of relationships also differ; some couples argue often and some couples rarely disagree. Those with laid-back personalities tend to argue less and compromise more easily. Some never disagree. The lack of the need to disagree is not an indication of a perfect relationship. Quite the contrary—it often indicates a lack of passion for one another and a lackadaisical attitude toward the relationship.
Some arguments seem dire to one person and trivial to the other, though even the most seemingly trivial arguments can trigger deep emotions. It does not matter whether the issues are serious or what the outcomes may be. What matters is how the problems are dealt with.
For a relationship to be successful and endure, the lines of communication must stay open. That means airing grievances as they occur and listening without reaction or judgment to grievances when they are expressed.
Couples in healthy relationships should feel safe enough to honestly express their feelings to each other, knowing that their opinions will be respected, acknowledged, and heard. Still there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Even the healthiest ones with the best communication skills go through rough patches.
We are human and our emotions fluctuate. Our levels of tolerance and patience decrease when we are tired, having a bad day, or not feeling well. During these times we may take our frustrations out on our partner—maybe nitpick or go into a rage over something trivial. We do that because we feel safe. We know that our partner will love us despite our mood.
Though our partners love and support us, they may not take the attack lightly. Their own anger may be incited. That is a normal reaction. It is a healthy response to feelings of fear, frustration, and surprise attacks.
Anger may compel us to do and say things that we do not mean and often regret later. But anger is not to blame. What we choose to do with our anger makes the difference between successful or unsuccessful conflict resolutions.
We all react to confrontation differently. Some see confrontation as a threat; some accept it as a normal function of relationships. The way we react has a tremendous impact on the success of our relationships. Our reactionary tendencies are rooted in childhood, but we can learn to change them.
We learn conflict resolution from watching how our parents do it. If our parents never disagreed or problem-solved in our presence, our natural tendency as adults may be fear and avoidance of it. That is not to say that parents should have knock-down, drag-out fights or argue excessively in front of their children to teach them conflict resolution. That is a very poor example. In fact it is child-abuse and very damaging to a developing child. If this kind of argument must take place, it should be taken to a private place where no one else can listen.
If you carry painful memories of frightening conflicts between your parents that left you feeling powerless, it is likely that you may fear it. You may also be intolerant of the least bit of upheaval. But the opposite may also be true. Perhaps you have modeled your parents’ behavior and established fighting and yelling as the norm in your own home.
Examine your responses and where they come from. If your reactions are extreme in either direction you will have difficulty with conflict resolution.
Are you someone who fears conflict to the degree that you ignore your own feelings so you will not have to experience it? That cannot be working well for you. Issues do not disappear simply because they are ignored.
Deeper concerns underlie every issue. At the heart of every problem lies a personal need to feel safe and secure, a need to feel respected and valued, and a need to feel loved and cared for. Left unattended to, unresolved issues fester and inappropriately erupt.
Healthy relationships do not just happen. Two people with two sets of baggage do not magically meld into one happy couple. It takes time and work to grow a relationship. The keys to success are: rationality, negotiation and compromise.
When it comes to relationship conflict management, there are specific techniques that will bring effective resolution. These techniques are known as “fair fighting” skills.
We tend to think of fights as power struggles chock-full of uncontrolled outbursts, irrational behaviors, and insults. But conflicts never get resolved that way. Fair-fighting skills are established ground rules. They are methods of arguing in which disagreements and grievances become respectful, controlled confrontations. They are very effective because couples who feel safe in their argument style are more likely deal with issues as they come up. The more issues a couple successfully work through, the more trust and understanding they build with each other.
Relationship conflict management, executed well, creates healthy relationship growth. The security of knowing that a relationship is strong enough to survive challenges makes it feel more unified. That feeling brings couples closer, more intimately connected.
The most important thing to remember is that the two of you are on the same team. That team is your relationship. Every problem that occurs within your team is shared. Disagreements are not win-lose situations, but rather attempts to come to mutually satisfying solutions that preserve the relationship.
Randi Fine is the author of the groundbreaking book Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: The Narcissistic Abuse Survivor’s Guide to Healing, the most comprehensive, most well researched, and most up-to-date book on this subject. In addition to helping survivors recognize their abuse and heal from it, this book teaches mental health professionals how to recognize and properly treat the associated abuse syndrome. She is also the author of Cliffedge Road: A Memoir, the first and only book to characterize the life-long progression of complications caused by narcissistic child abuse.
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