Do you remember that catchy Jordin Sparks song from a couple of years ago, Battlefield? The chorus goes something like this:
I never meant to start a war
You know I never want to hurt you
Don’t even know what we’re fighting for
Why does love always feel like a battlefield?
The YouTube video of this song has been watched more than 27 million times, so I’m guessing Sparks is not alone in feeling this way.
Your love may not feel like a battlefield, exactly, (and I hope it doesn’t) but I think the reason that this song resonates is because it touches on the truth that some degree of conflict is inevitable in close personal relationships.
Everyone is different. No matter how well you know yourself and your partner, no matter how well you speak each others love languages, you’re not going to avoid conflict altogether. You will disagree with some of your partner’s opinions and their choices. You will be annoyed or hurt by the ways in which they do (or don’t do) certain things. Likewise, they’re bound to be frustrated or hurt by some of your habits, words, or actions.
But, you know what? Conflict is not all bad. Handled constructively, conflict can deepen and strengthen your relationship. The ways in which your partner is different from you can teach you things, help you see the world differently, push you to stretch and learn, and enrich your life in other ways.
There are all sorts of books and courses out there that teach tools and tips for resolving conflict. However, here is the foundational first step in learning to deal well with conflict: Understanding how you and your partner react to tension and pressure in your intimate relationships.
Understanding how each of you typically reacts to important differences in opinions and desires, or frustrated hopes and expectations, will help you to communicate about these issues more effectively when they come up. Then, if you add good understanding to good communication and emotional self-control, you’re three quarters of the way towards resolving your conflict well.
Your default settings: How do you react to pressure and conflict?
When we are hurt, confused, upset or angry, we all have certain reactions that come naturally to us. Think about the way you behave when you’re in conflict with a family member. You often react in certain ways, and so do they. Let’s call these natural reactions our “default settings”.
These default settings when we’re under pressure are the result of our family history, personality, and life experiences. If we understand our own reactions to pressure and conflict—our default settings—we are better able to make choices about our responses in any given situation rather than just being ruled by our reactions.
Here are some questions to help you identify your default settings. As you think about them, try to think of specific examples of conflicts with these people. Then, make some notes about your own actions and reactions in those situations:
- How do you handle conflict with your parents?
- How do you handle conflict with your friends?
- How do you handle conflict at work?
- How do you handle conflict in a romantic relationship?
Now that you’ve spent some time thinking through these questions, can you identify any interesting patterns in how you act and react when you are faced with conflict?
Here are some more questions to help you think through your default settings:
- Do you typically do “hot conflict” (open expressions of anger and frustration, fighting) or “cold conflict” (stonewalling, or unexpressed annoyance and frustration that can build up over time)?
- Do you tend to “compete” and want to get your way, or to compromise?
- Do you approach conflict directly, or avoid it?
- Do you ever lash out in anger or frustration, or do you prefer to withdraw—shutting down and refusing to continue the conversation?
- Is your approach to conflict similar in most situations, or do you approach conflict in personal relationships very differently from conflict at work?
Now that you have a general idea of your default settings in conflict, think about how these default settings hurt and help you when it comes to disagreements with your partner.
In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about some specific strategies to help you manage conflict. Before we get to strategies, however, here is one final set of questions to help you think about how you and your partner typically “do” conflict.
Understanding your typical actions and reactions in conflict might not be half the battle, but understanding yours and your partner’s default settings in conflict probably is. So leave a comment below and share your reactions to one or more of the following statements:
The sorts of things that make me frustrated with my partner include…
The sorts of things that make my partner frustrated with me include…
When I get upset or angry with my partner I usually…
When my partner gets angry or upset they usually…
Thanks! See you back here on Friday for the next post in this series.
(*The content of this post was mostly drawn from my new book From Stranger To Lover: 16 Strategies For Building A Great Relationship Long Distance which launches on July 29th.)