skills for resolving conflict depicted by couple holding hands

Skills for Resolving Conflict in a Relationship

When a couple gets into a conflict, they generally get caught on the surface or problem level. Several things need to happen to resolve the conflict. You’ll learn about the necessary skills for resolving conflict in a relationship in this article.

Respect

Skills for resolving conflict in a relationship include respect. Respect means we have a regard for the feelings and wishes of another. We see them as a separate person who is different but equally valuable. Both parties need to be respectful of others.

Being respectful includes no name-calling, no criticism, or contempt.

Being respectful includes an understanding that our partner’s needs may be different than ours. For example, time outs are understood as necessary to help one partner find calmness before continuing a conversation. Time outs are not used as a punishment, nor are they left open-ended. There is an agreed time set up to reconnect and finish the conversation.

When we are respectful, instead of shutting down emotionally and defending or blaming, we are open, vulnerable, and available to listen to what our partner has to say. We are willing to look at our contribution to the conflict (our behavior that is stirring the fire).

Conflict is often co-created. It is difficult to resolve a dispute in a meaningful way if either party does not behave in a respectful manner and take responsibility for their behavior. 

Understanding attachment

Skills for resolving conflict in a relationship include an understanding of attachment. This allows each party to identify their attachment needs and fears, as well as what triggers these needs and fears. This is because, beneath the conflict, we always find emotional needs and fears.

This is true even if we are dealing with ideologies (religious groups and politics), teams, or corporations. For example, “Is my boss looking out for me?” To resolve conflict, we have to dig down to the emotional level and work there. 

To understand the language of attachment, you will need to be somewhat fluent in identifying your feelings. If you have difficulty identifying your feelings, you will have to learn how. Therapy is generally an excellent way to develop facility with feelings. 

Escaping feelings

Sometimes you can identify your feelings and address your fears and needs in a vulnerable way. But you have trouble tolerating difficult feelings – and try to escape them rather than experience them. Again, therapy can help, as can meditation, yoga, or even journaling. It is critical to find a way to experience what life hands you and witness it rather than run from it. 

Getting below the content into the underlying attachment feelings

On the surface, relationship conflict appears to be the content – the subject being disagreed about. For example, in a disagreement about whose house to spend a holiday. But underneath that content, we will find emotional fears and needs. These are attachment-based needs and fears. These emotional concerns are focused on survival and love.

Attachment phrases

Do you love me?

Do you care about me?

Do you care about what I am feeling?

Will you abandon me?

Am I good enough?

Am I enough for you?

Do you accept me as I am? 

These phrases are gold for your relationship. They allow you to get to the active part of the conflict, instead of staying mired on the surface. When we are able to identify our fears and share our needs, we are moving into a new kind of communication – one that will help your conflict (and relationship) get unstuck.

Are you able to identify an underlying attachment phrase that is applicable to you?

George and Maia

Here is an example story to illustrate this: 

George was fired from his job and is now drinking excessively. His drinking stresses his wife Maia out – a lot. She tells him. They end up fighting about his drinking. He tells her she is controlling. She tells him she feels unheard.

What is happening?

George is obviously upset and stressed by the loss of his job. He doesn’t know how to deal with this blow to his self-esteem or his underlying feelings – in this case, probably anger, fear, and perhaps even feeling he isn’t good enough. On top of that, he is probably feeling that life is unfair.

Maia is obviously upset and stressed by George’s drinking and behavior. She doesn’t know how to deal with what feels like the loss of her partner. She has been catapulted back into history that tells her she is unsafe; she is not cared for and has been abandoned. 

If George and Maia could discuss their deep feelings, triggers, fears, and needs, they would have a different conversation.

Their conversation

Maia: I am very concerned about your drinking… and I feel as I did when I was younger, and nobody cared about how I felt. When you drink like that, I feel alone. You check out. I don’t even know if I have a partner. And then when I talk to you about it, you act like I’m your enemy. I’m your friend. I want you to hear my pain and look at how you are dealing with your pain.

George: I understand your concern. I have so many feelings coming up. I put so much into that job, and then I just got thrown away. Like I was worthless. It made me feel like I’m not good enough, like no matter what I do, it isn’t enough. I hear that you want me to be more present with you. I’m not sure what to do about the pain I am in. I am sorry I have been cutting myself off from you. I know you are trying to help me, you, and us. 

Maia: When you say that, I feel more hope. I feel like you are more present and available. I feel less scared, and I feel more connected to you. What can we do so that you are able to stay more present with me?

George: I don’t know what to do about my drinking. I really do feel like checking out sometimes. I think I need to get through these intense feelings. I do know when you speak to me like you just did, I feel more connected to you as well and I don’t feel like you are trying to control me and make me conform to your ideas of me. My mother was always telling me who to be and what to do. It is a big trigger for me. I love you a lot and don’t want to cause you pain. We will figure a way through this. 

While this conversation isn’t solving the apparent problem of George’s drinking to escape his intense feelings, it is opening up a new way of communicating and interacting between George and Maia. George has the opportunity to get support from Maia instead of trying to get through this on his own in a way that is destructive to his relationship. 

Healing & reconnection

Life is filled with challenging events that may shake us to the core. We don’t have to allow the challenging events of our lives to fracture us and our relationships. Instead, we can use these events to build more connected relationships with those we love and depend on, as well as internally with our own experience. Healing involves learning to witness and integrate our experiences, and communicate in a truer fashion. It allows us to connect and both support and be supported emotionally by our partners.  

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