Go from Conflict to Cooperation in 5 Easy Steps

Julie is sick and tired of everything being a struggle in her marriage. She and her husband Chris are both opinionated. Julie appreciated this when they first got together; debating with him brought passion to their relationship. When they settled down and got married, what used to add spark turned into a big hassle.

Everything from choosing the pattern on their dishes to the kind of house to buy to the best way to drive home from the mall was an argument! This has started to drag Julie down. For once, she’d like to feel like she and Chris are on the same team working to make a decision.

The conflict in her marriage is particularly stressful because Julie and Chris’ first child is due in less than a month. She wants to feel like Chris is truly her partner as they step into parenting together and she’s worried that will never happen.

It’s exhausting to constantly butt heads with your partner. Nothing gets done– besides fighting– and passion dies in the process.

You and your partner might not debate as frequently or be as argument-prone as Julie and Chris are. Maybe you two mostly get along and agree…except on one or two important issues. It might be money, sex, parenting or the level of commitment in your relationship.

When you two get stuck in a stalemate, it can be miserable.

You might believe that one of you has to “surrender” and give up what you want for the sake of your relationship. This belief can bring up resentment and defensiveness and cause you to pull away from one another.

Again, the issue never does get resolved and your relationship is weaker than ever before.

There IS a way to bring back peace, connection and not lose the passion that you do want. Here are 5 steps to move you away from conflict and toward cooperation…

1. Know your hot button issues.
When problems arise, the temptation can be to react as quickly as possible and usually without much conscious thought. You’re worried, anxious and a little angry too. You probably want the way you and your partner communicate to improve and you want that to happen now. You might even fear that without a significant change, your relationship will end.

It’s always helpful to look at where you are with as much objectivity as you can. Identify what the hot button issues are in your relationship. What is it that you and your partner argue about most frequently? When you know where you usually disagree, then you know where to focus your energy and make a change.

2. Watch what you do.
Remember, be as objective as you can. This process will really work (and quicker than you think) if you can observe, learn and do so without getting caught up in blame. Notice what happens when you and your partner come up against one of your hot button issues.

How do you usually react? Pay attention not only to what kinds of things you say to your partner during contentious conversations, but also how you feel in your body. Do you tense up, sweat or feel nauseous? Do you say things like, “You always…” or “It has to be this way…?” Be especially aware of the things you say and do that seem to drive up the tension and push your partner away.

3. Watch what your partner does.
Do the same thing and watch your partner’s habitual reactions. Be sure to keep breathing to stay as calm as possible. You might have to think back to a recent difficult conversation if you can’t observe in the moment. This is where blame and judgment might come in so try to focus on observable information like, “He used the words…” or “His shoulders go up and he raises his voice.” Be sure to also notice how you feel when your partner says or does particular things.

4. Interrupt your habits.
You can do a lot with all of this observing and learning. The tension you feel in your body or see in your partner’s body and the dismissive or combative words you hear coming from your or your partner’s mouth are red flags. These are signals that you two are headed toward more conflict and arguments.

To turn communication around and move toward cooperation, interrupt these habits. Do so without being hurtful, critical or unkind. Instead, remind yourself to pause, breathe and get clear before you say another word. This might mean you ask your partner to give you a few minutes. You can interrupt your partner’s usual habits by saying, “Do you need a moment to calm down?” or “I’d like to explain this in a different way.” or “Will you please tell me more so that I can understand?”

5. Build on what works.
Be sure to also notice and appreciate the times when you and your partner DO work together. This might not be on an issue that you think is as important as the “big” one you often fight about, but the fact that you two are working together is a great sign. What is different about this issue? What seems to help you two cooperate?

When you see that there are times that you and your partner cooperate (even if there aren’t many), this is a place to build from. Apply these ways of speaking to your more difficult conversations. Adopt a similar mood and manner of holding your body when you two are talking about a hot button issue.

Shift your approach. Stop expecting to argue about certain topics and start opening up to the possibility that you and your partner will be able to work together, find a solution and get closer in the process.

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