No matter how well you get along with your new partner, you will inevitably run into some conflict.
Your first disagreement may be over something small or a miscommunication. Or maybe you’ll discover that you don’t agree with each other about something that you’re both passionate about. Regardless of what the disagreement is about, conflict doesn’t have to spell disaster for your new relationship.
Conflict exists even in good, healthy relationships. Couples say things that hurt each other, become critical of each other, and get into arguments.
If you’re in a new relationship, conflict may take you by surprise. You’re just getting to know each other, so it can be challenging to navigate disagreements together. Here are four, research backed tips to help your relationship navigate conflict.
1. Make sure you know where they’re coming from
Remember how your teacher made you repeat directions back when you were in kindergarten? We may not be learning about primary colors anymore, but there’s still something to be said for repeating things back if you’re facing conflict with your significant other.
Just like it was frustrating for your teacher to feel ignored by the class, it can be frustrating to feel like someone isn’t paying attention to you, especially when that someone is your partner.
“When you interrupt your partner or assume that you know what they’re thinking, you’re not giving them a chance to express themselves,” explains Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman, the chair of the psychology department at Albright College. “Even if you are confident that you know where your partner is coming from or know what they’re going to say, you could still be wrong, and your partner will still feel like you’re not listening.”
The next time you run into conflict, take the time to repeat back what you’re hearing from your partner in your own words. If you heard him or her correctly, you’ll validate their concerns. If you didn’t hear them correctly, this skill will give them a chance to clarify and make sure you know where they’re coming from.
2. Discuss one conflict at a time
If you and you partner are discussing issues that you disagree about, it’s tempting to air old grievances. After all, you’re talking about conflict, so why not talk about all the conflict?
Respect your partner and your relationship by sticking to one issue at a time. If you’re discussing a miscommunication issue from this week, it’s not fair to either of you to bring up a point of miscommunication from a month ago.
Discussing just one conflict at a time is a sign of a healthy relationship. Couples who are unhappy in their relationship are more likely to pull many conversations about conflict into one. Conflict researcher John Gottman calls this practice “kitchen-sinking.” That’s when you throw in everything (and the kitchen sink!) into the conversation.
Tackle issues one at a time, and avoid burying your emotions about conflict. The more you discuss conflict as it occurs in your life together, the less likely you are to bring up past, undisclosed hurts.
3. Maintain the magic ratio, despite conflict
If you’re tackling conflict with your partner, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of negativity. One issue can quickly lead to another, and you may wonder if you’ll ever enjoy peace again.
Processing and working through conflict doesn’t give you the go-ahead to treat your partner with disrespect, though. Don’t give into the temptation to dish out negativity in response to the conflict you’re going through together.
You may find yourself engaging in what Dr. Gottman calls “negative affect reciprocity.” Couples will trade negative remark for insult and discussions can get heated.
But you have to discuss conflict together. So how much negativity is too much negativity for a relationship?
Dr. Gottman suggests the 5 to 1 ratio. For every negative behavior in your relationship, balance it out with five positive behaviors. These positive emotions aren’t grand signs of affection. Instead, they’re daily actions that include things like making good-humored comments, collaborating with each other, and being genuinely kind to the other.
Research from Dr. Gottman and his team revealed that couples who maintain that golden ratio are less likely to be separated four years later.
Much of Dr. Gottman’s research revolves around married couples. But if you’re able to implement their findings in your new relationship, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.
4. Realize the importance of timing when it comes to conflict conversations
Even though you want to resolve a conflict, when and where you resolve a conflict matters.
When Joseph and I were newly married, we butted heads about something. To be honest, I can’t even tell you exactly what started our disagreement. But regardless of the topic, we weren’t able to see where the other person was coming from.
On the way to drop Joseph off for a weekend retreat with his friends, I unloaded everything that was on my heart. Then, we pulled up to the parking lot where he was meeting his friend to drive to their weekend trip. He didn’t have any time to respond to my thoughts, and because of the day’s schedule, he had to leave right away. I spent most of the weekend wondering how he felt about the issue,
Before you dive into a conversation about conflict, assess the situation. Are both of you in a healthy spot to have this conversation? Hunger and exhaustion can lend to a counter-productive conversation.
Do you have time to start and finish the conversation? If not, it’s okay to schedule time later in the day (or the week!) to tackle a big conversation together.
If you see yourself handling conflict in an unhealthy way, take a time out from your argument. Even a short break for a few deep breaths can be enough to calm things down.