Resolving Hot-Button Conflicts

Note: This is the second of a two-part series.

Even lawyers aren’t always adversarial. Many lawyers will acknowledge that a successful negotiation allows both sides to walk away from the table feeling content with the outcome.

But all too often, couples who can’t resolve their differences approach each other like bad lawyers. They argue their case over and over again—attempting to wear the other down—in order to get their way. In a relationship, however, it isn’t wise to have a winner and a loser. If one person feels defeated and therefore submits to the other, that will just generate greater levels of resentment.

Here are some suggestions about how to successfully resolve angry conflicts in your relationship, courtesy of Ellen Wachtel, in her book We Love Each Other But… (St. Martin’s Griffin):

  • Make a list of your mate’s specific sensitivities and hot-button issues. What is he particularly reactive to? What really sets her off? Keep this list handy, because you’ll be able to add to it as things arise.
  • Acknowledge your own sensitivities and issues, and turn criticisms into requests. Often you can avoid highly charged conflict by prefacing your reactions, comments and criticisms with an acknowledgement that you are touchy also. You could say something like: “We both know I am sensitive about being told what to do. Even though your advice may not bother someone else, it annoys me. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t give me directions and advice when I’m driving.” In general, the more you can couch your request as having to do with your needs rather than your partner’s failings, the more likely you are to be heard. If you say, for instance: “I know I get stressed by a messy environment and that I’m a bit of a neat freak,” you are inviting your partner to try harder to keep things neat. If you label him a slob, he is less likely to cooperate with you.
  • Pair a statement of what you appreciate, admire or respect about your partner with a complaint or a request. For most people, criticism is hard to take, but it can be particularly difficult if it undercuts someone’s self-confidence or increases his/her self-doubt. Prefacing a complaint will soften the way it will be received. You might say something like:” I know you try hard to be even-tempered and most of the time I think you do pretty well, but recently I’ve been feeling you’ve been moody and quick to anger with me.”
  • Try to accommodate your partner’s sensitivities even if they seem irrational. Are there things you would do or say (or not do and say) if you were specifically attempting to avoid engaging one of your partner’s hot-button issues? Avoid “fighting words.” Even if you think your partner overreacts and shouldn’t be so sensitive, don’t say things that are likely to lead to a bad reaction. If telling your partner that you think he’s selfish leads to a huge fight, stop using that word. Describe his actions in some other way. (This does not mean you should do all the accommodating. Each of us has the responsibility to work through our own issues (fear of abandonment, jealousy, a bad childhood, lack of trust, insecurity, low self-worth, etc.) so that the task of solving your problems has not been passed along to your partner.)

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