Five Prescriptions for Navigating through Conflict in Relationships

black and white picAll relationships struggle. To love is to at least occasionally engage in conflict. And we all know that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Unfortunately, we often fight the most with the people we love, whether they are our friends, family, or romantic partners. Because we are most invested in them, we are heavily affected by their words and actions and feel comfortable enough to express our dissatisfaction.

Michelle, a thirty-something attorney, speaks frequently about struggles in her relationships with her women friends and boyfriend of two years, Kyle. While kind-hearted and generous in many ways, Michelle emanates an “edge” or hints of anger, which inadvertently pushes away the people in her life, especially the ones she loves. She often feels remorseful after one of her episodes with either Kyle or a dear friend. Michelle does not know how to change this pattern of behavior. Although she has suffered from feelings of loneliness and isolation over the years, she has not yet learned how to nurture herself and her relationships.

In order to prevent her relational as well as self-sabotage, Michelle learns and implements these key strategies for navigating through conflict.

1. Remain open and curious. 

Be curious, rather than judgmental about what your friend or loved one shares. It is much more compelling and informative to listen carefully when someone is speaking to you. Judgment and criticism can be toxic to any relationship. At times it is easy to assume that you know what your friend is about to say or even be compelled to complete her sentence. When you remain open to the possibilities, you may find yourself surprised by the outcome. People feel cared for when they are truly heard. Pay attention to your friends’ words, the nuances of their body language, tone of their voice, and eye contact. Remember “tone over content” matters most.

2. Assume the best of the person with whom you are talking.

Our minds have a way of taking us to weird and sometimes paranoid places. Often we think the worst without considering the alternatives. Odds are, we will discover that our friend or lover is well intended if we allow ourselves to listen with an open mind and heart. Try to understand the other point-of-view and assume the best, even when you disagree. You stand to gain powerful insights about your friends when you understand their perspectives. When you assume the best about another person, he or she tends to step into his or her best self.

3. Laugh Often.

Before, after, and even during a conflict, try to find anything at all that the two of you can laugh about. Deliberately craft fun experiences, for these times together create the memories that bring meaning and sweetness to our lives. It’s been shown that laughter builds the immune system, releases endorphins, increases blood flow to the heart, relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure, especially in women, improves the body’s ability to use oxygen, boosts energy level and sense of well-being, improves problem solving abilities, decreases stress, pain, anxiety and anger, and heightens optimism and resilience.

4. Apologize

Be quick to apologize when you have hurt or offended another. Apology is an important way of showing compassion, respecting another person, and letting them know that their feelings count. An apology can heal relationships and alleviate suffering. Although the past cannot be undone, a heartfelt apology can work wonders to repair a damaged relationship. Apologizing means digging deep and taking in how you have wronged another and letting them know that you understand and that you are sorry. You will benefit by not carrying around the guilt and regret for having said or done something that caused someone else pain. They will benefit by being recognized and feeling that they can more readily move past the offense or wrongdoing. An apology also clears the path to forgiveness.

5. Forgive

According to psychologist and researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, forgiveness requires a “shift in thinking.” We make the decision to view the person that wronged us differently. It does not mean that we forget what happened or that the person is off the hook for their behavior. It means that we are ready to let go of the wrongdoing and of the past so that we can move forward in our own lives. Sometimes forgiving another person deepens the relationship and sometimes it means that the relationship is over and you are choosing to no longer look back. Either way, forgiveness liberates us from the pain and loss of the past. Learning to forgive can be cultivated with practice and the passage of time.

How do you navigate through the conflicts in your relationships?

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