Will Your Relationship Last, Part II: What to Do with a Conflict Mismatch

Posted by on Dec 13, 2019 in Couples Counseling | Comments Off on Will Your Relationship Last, Part II: What to Do with a Conflict Mismatch

Most people have figured out by now that a mismatch between partners makes it hard to resolve conflict. Perhaps you are driven for you and your partner to work together to “fix” a problem while your partner would be perfectly happy if you never spoke of it again. Or maybe your partner prefers to passionately argue their point while you just want things to be peaceful between you.

The end result is that the conflict escalates, and it doesn’t seem possible for the two of you to resolve your differences. Sadly, many relationships cannot withstand the strain of a conflict mismatch. I believe, however, that there is hope for couples who find themselves in this situation. There are things that people can do to resolve their differences and communicate more effectively. Here’s how.

Own It!

My experience has been that couples with mismatched conflict styles spend a lot of time and energy insisting that the other partner handle conflict the same way they do. This approach is doomed to fail if your partner doesn’t already handle conflict the same way. Neither style is better or worse than the other, they are just different.

Insisting that the other partner adopts the same conflict style just won’t work. That’s because these styles are deeply ingrained, usually starting in childhood. They cannot just be swapped out for another style.

Still, it does help for couples to recognize and appreciate that each partner handles conflict differently. When you begin to accept that there are real differences in how each of you handles conflict (and that this is probably not going to change), you’re one step closer to being able to manage your conflict mismatch.

Talk About It!

Next, it’s important that couples discuss how they handle conflict. Which style does each of you use when conflict occurs: avoiding, volatile, or validating? How did your family members handle conflict when you were growing up? How does each of your styles impact the other person?

Asking questions like these and talking about the issue (when not already in conflict!) helps couples get a feel for where each person is coming from. You can then see one another’s perspective when conflict does arise. Once couples have these conversations, they can then start to work towards figuring out how to deal with conflict together.

Manage It!

The goal of addressing a conflict mismatch is not for the couple to completely abandon their individual ways of handling conflict. Although a person’s particular style is deeply ingrained, it is not set in stone either. Rather, it’s more productive for both partners to accommodate one another’s styles and make changes. For example:

Volatile:  This person might decide to write their feelings down on paper or in an email and then share them with their partner when their emotions are a bit calmer. This helps to tone down some of the volatility so that their emotional intensity doesn’t drown out the message they are trying to convey.

Avoiding:  The couple can agree to discuss the argument/conflict in chunks rather than one long conversation. Every five to ten minutes they can take a break to separate and cool off.  This is helpful because avoidant people often become overwhelmed if the discussion goes on for too long.

Validating:  These types of people need validating feedback during a conflict. Either the validating partner can request this feedback or the other partner can offer it. Some examples are “We are still on the same team even though we disagree” or “It would mean a lot to me for you to acknowledge that I am trying.”

Resolving Conflict Mismatch

When people work to make these changes and accommodate each other’s conflict styles, then they will be able to better manage and resolve conflicts with one another. It requires that couples allow for some give and take as they work to find a solution that works for them. Also, partners need to have a flexible mindset and be open to seeing things from the other partner’s point of view. These are not always easy things to do but it is well worth the effort.

If you and your partner are struggling with a conflict mismatch, consider seeking help from a relationship therapist. Learning how to manage your conflict mismatch might very well save your relationship!

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