© Bruce Koff, MSW, LCSW. All Rights Reserved.
As a therapist who works with couples, the three words I most fear hearing from any newly-established pair are: “We never fight.”
Individuals new to a relationship must fight. Of course, I don’t mean breaking dishes, intimidation or violence. Rather, I mean a fair fight in which the healthy assertion of oneself occurs in a context of respect, safety, reciprocity and love.
Healthy conflicts generate closeness. They help us establish the rules for the relationship. They tell us where our interests and those of our partner diverge and foster the capacity for give-and-take. They set limits and define boundaries. Most important, they allow each to be more fully known and embraced by the other.
Some of us are great with conflict. We can assert without hostility, problem-solve creatively, and not shrink from disagreement or strong emotion. But many of us come to fear conflict, often based on previous negative experiences with it. We may have been overpowered by others as children or witnessed the victimization of others. We may have seen anger turn to rage and encountered physical threats or violence.
Some of us learned to avoid conflict by withdrawing from it, by pretending all is well when we know it’s not, or by trying to control circumstances and relationships so that no conflicts can emerge. Over time, with little successful experience in working through differences, we lose confidence in ourselves, our partners and our relationships. We lose the experience of closeness that comes with resolution, including the spontaneous and nearly comic passion of “make-up sex.”
The experience of conflict may therefore hold a special power and promise in same-sex relationships. As we learn to master conflict, we experience ourselves differently, overcome fear, and feel safe and close with another in ways we might never have imagined possible. At times, we even heal old wounds that pre-date the relationship.
So it might be worthwhile to consider ways to utilize conflict as opportunities to strengthen our relationships and enliven them. Here are a dozen do’s to consider:
1) Think of every conflict with your partner as practice. Learning a new skill requires repetition, and conflict resolution is the ability to apply a set of skills to a given situation.
2) Identify your feelings --- all of them. Sometimes you may know that you’re mad, but you don’t recognize all the other emotions tied to this one emotion. Are you also hurt? Offended? Frightened? Jealous? Sad? Excited? Worried about what will happen if you express these directly to your partner?
3) Say what you feel, but don’t try to read your partner’s mind. Starting a sentence with, “I feel that you…” is not a feeling; it’s usually an accusation.
4) Listen actively. Before you respond to something your partner says, take time to repeat to your partner your understanding of his/her words and reflect the feelings that underlie them. Don’t editorialize or add your own “take.” Both of you will appreciate the experience of being fully heard, and that alone can sometimes foster a more flexible response.
5) Be curious. Don’t try to persuade your partner not to feel something. We feel what we feel, whether it seems reasonable or not. Instead, ask about the feelings: Where do they come from? How strong are they? When has your partner felt them before? What triggers them? What part have you played in this?
6) Take a break if you need one. But let your partner know how much time you need and when you’ll return to the discussion. It’s okay to give yourself time when you feel flooded, overwhelmed, or confused, but maintain trust with your partner by reassuring him/her that you will not disappear.
7) Try something new. We all can have somewhat ingrained patterns of reacting to conflict that are ultimately harmful. Do you tend to withdraw? Interrupt? Get defensive? Become hostile? Consider experimenting with a different approach that fosters more connection instead of less.
8) Agree to disagree. We can’t always resolve every conflict in the moment it occurs. We may have a different perspective in a day or two. Someone we confide in may offer a solution, or we may feel differently after rest or a good meal. Give yourselves time to relax, rest, and consider what you’ve heard.
9) Think in win-win terms. Conflicts escalate when it’s assumed that one party must win and the other must lose. Instead, ask how both of you can achieve some part of what each of you want. The give-and-take in relationships, the willingness to compromise, and the ability to think out of the box foster grace in relationships and a generosity of spirit.
10) Be accountable. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict, and hold your partner accountable as well. Apologies are nice, but not sufficient. If you truly believe you’ve done something wrong, admit it and explicitly commit to a better behavior or approach. Expect this of each other.
11) Make sure the solution passes the “relationship test.” Any new agreement is good only to the extent that it strengthens the relationship. At the end of the day, not only must the decision be acceptable to both parties, but it should foster something good and valued in the bond between you. Does the relationship function more fairly now? Do you feel closer and more connected to each other? Has your commitment to each other’s well-being been enhanced?
12) Let make-up sex happen! Don’t use sex to short-circuit or paper over a conflict. You’ll only make it worse. Instead, let it happen as a function of the closeness you genuinely feel for each other. If that’s where you arrive, go ahead and seal the deal.
© Bruce Koff.
Bruce Koff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and COO of Live Oak, a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Bruce specializes in clinical practice with LGBT individuals and their families, is co-author of Something To Tell You: The Road Families Travel When A Child Is Gay, and writes an online column for Windy City Media Group. Bruce has been a pioneering advocate for LGBT concerns in the fields of social service and mental health since 1977, and is a recipient of the City of Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame Award. Visit his website at LiveOakChicago.com.