For most of us, “conflict” is an unpleasant experience and many people attempt to avoid it at any cost. The problem is, conflict is normal and is a natural element of all relationships. Conflict can occur because one person wants things that another person does not. Conflict does not usually occur when one person is “right” and the other person is “wrong”, although people often feel that this is the case. Conflict arises when one set of desires or expectations does not match up with another’s desires or expectations. Most conflicts can be successfully and effectively resolved, but in some cases they cannot. While there sometimes may not be effective solutions present that will make things better during a conflict, there are some things that people often do that can make conflicts much worse and more destructive.
During conflicts between romantic partners, there are a number of behaviors that are unlikely to make the situation better and one reason that people engage in these behaviors is that they mistakenly believe them to be helpful.
Play the Victim Role. This behavior is as annoying to many people as it is effective in building resentment and preventing real change and growth from occurring. In a dispute, one person says something along the lines of, “You’re right. I’m a piece of garbage. How can anyone ever love me?” Regardless of how legitimate the conflict might be or how reasonable a partner’s anger, most angry partners will diminish or abandon their anger and their position in order to help the “victim” feel better about themselves. This behavior quickly shifts the focus from the problem at hand and puts it on taking care of the victim’s feelings rather than addressing and possibly resolving the actual issues that caused the conflict. When relevant issues are continually not addressed due to this kind of distraction, the problems do not go away; they build and fester. Even when one person presents as a victim, an appropriate response is one that acknowledges their feelings but expresses directly that their feelings will be addressed separately and at another time. The point is to stay focused on the issue at hand, not on anything else. Expressing the intention to discuss the victim’s feelings separately provides an acknowledgement that their feelings are important, but it also eliminates the distraction that such feelings might produce.
Confront Them at an Inappropriate Time. Whether or not it is done intentionally, some people tend to start a conflict or raise a sensitive issue at inconvenient or inappropriate times. Engaging in conflict at a bad time usually means that the timing of it is bad for the recipient but not for the person who raises the issue. Examples of some particularly bad times to raise a conflictual issue are: when the partner is about to go to sleep or leave for work, when the partner is at work or in a setting where they cannot speak freely, before, during or after sex, or in settings in which alcohol has been consumed. Deliberate or not, the person who starts conflicts at times like these is taking advantage of the fact that they are the one who knows when the conflict is about to start and they can choose a time and place where their partner will be at a disadvantage and cannot respond freely. It’s like arguing with a person who cannot argue back. This behavior cannot be effective in resolving an issue and it greatly increases the chances of producing an even bigger conflict because the partner who was ambushed now carries the resentment and anger of being constrained in their capacity to respond. The more appropriate way to present an issue to be discussed is to select a time and place that both partners can agree will provide them with sufficient time, space and energy to fully discuss and respond to the relevant issues.
Blaming. Blaming is another tactic employed during conflicts that makes the “blamer” the victim and makes the recipient of the blame take all of the responsibility for whatever mistakes, problems or issues are present. Blaming creates a scenario in which one person is completely “right” and the other person is totally “wrong”. There is no awareness that one’s own behavior might have played a part in the conflict and, as such, there is no need or desire to share in the responsibility for the presence of the problem or its resolution. Blaming is also instrumental in building resentment in a partner who is frequently portrayed as a “villain” and decreases the chances of resolving an issue because the blamed person tends to become defensive at the first hint of being blamed. A better strategy is to present the problem and then talk through how each person might have contributed to it. “I’m frustrated that I wind up paying for most of the outings we have, but I realize that I’ve never mentioned it to you and I usually grab the check before you do.” With this approach, one partner not only describes the issue but assumes his or her own level of participation in it, and it also allows the recipient of the message to know what their partner has been feeling and helps them to understand how they can better participate in solving the problem.
Go to Extremes. Very few people “always” or “never” do or don’t do any given thing. But people very frequently ascribe extreme labels to themselves or others, particularly during a conflict or during a period of time leading up to a conflict: “I’m always the one who apologizes,” You never help me,” “I never get what I want,” or “You always have things your way.” Using terms such as “always” and “never” not only restricts a person’s behavior to being “black” or “white”, it also locks their behavior into being that way even when the behavior changes or improves.
The person who accuses, “You never help me,” casts their partner into that position and even when the accused changes their behavior for the better, the accuser usually diminishes or disregards the changes and instead focuses on “You never help me.” After dealing long enough with this kind of rigid mindset, the accused may very well stop trying to change or improve, and the accuser then feels validated and thinks, See, it’s true! You never help me! This mindset keeps both partners frustrated. The accuser continues to feel burdened with a lack of help. The partner who has tried to change and improve does not feel acknowledged or appreciated for their efforts. Just as using extreme terms locks a person into certain roles, using more realistic and reasonable terms allows for change, growth and improvement. “I find myself doing more of the housecleaning or cooking than I feel comfortable doing,” is much less rigid than “I’m the only one who ever does anything around here!” It expresses dissatisfaction with the amount of housework, but also allows for the partner to increase his or her level of participation in doing household chores without feeling accused of being lazy.
These examples are but a few of the behaviors and mindsets that can start or keep conflict alive. They can also degrade or destroy a relationship. The first step in avoiding these behaviors is recognizing that most of us engage in them at some point. The next step is to make a conscious decision and effort not to continue to engage in them. Eliminating these ineffective behaviors can clear out many of the obstacles to the successful resolution of conflicts.