Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. People tend to think of conflict as bad for relationships, but research suggests it’s not whether you fight but how you fight that matters. Conflict conversations have the potential to be toxic, but they can also be constructive, allowing couples to work through important issues in their relationships. In one study, my colleague Serena Chen and I found that conflict conversations may be good for relationships—when participants in our study felt understood by their partners during a conversation about a top source of conflict in their relationship they actually reported being more satisfied with their relationships after the conversation than they were before it.
Do you fight about the same issue again and again? Do you keep repeating your thoughts and point of view, hoping that if you say it a different way your partner will finally understand where you are coming from? One way to get past having the same conversation over and over again is to try to gain perspective by looking at the conflict from a different point of view.
Below are three tips that social psychological research has shown can help you gain perspective during the conflict:
1. Imagine Being a Fly on The Wall
It’s easy to get immersed in the details of the conflict and forget to look at the big picture. Taking a step back can help you remember why you are having this conflict in the first place and what you hope to get out of it. Once you start fighting, it’s easy for your goal to move from resolving a larger issue to being specific to that fight—wanting to win or make the other person feel bad. Getting some distance can help you recall the bigger picture and orient you towards conflict resolution. It is hard to do this in the middle of a fight, but research suggests that reflecting back on prior conflicts can help you learn to use this technique. In one study, married couples who were asked to do this a handful of times actually maintained their marital satisfaction over two years relative to people who did not engage in this technique.
So what exactly do you do? Think back on a recent fight you had with your partner and try to imagine that fight as if you were a neutral third party—a “fly on the wall,”—who could see the whole picture of your relationship and wanted the best for both of you. Now think about how this outside observer might think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it? Practice and use this technique when you find yourself facing a disagreement with your partner to help you maintain the big picture.
2. Put Yourself in Your Partner’s Shoes
The next time you disagree with your partner, try switching roles. Instead of arguing your own point of view until you are blue in the face, try taking your partner’s perspective. The default approach to conflict is typically an egoistic point of view, with the goal of getting the other person to understand where you are coming from. Instead, try to understand where your partner is coming from. To do this, try to rephrase what your partner is saying. “So what you are saying is…” Then allow them to correct you if you got it wrong. Try asking why they feel the way they do. And imagine how you would feel if you were in their position. Annoyed that your partner is dragging their feet about planning a trip next year and feel like they don’t understand how important traveling is to you? Did you think about how uncertain their work situation is and how that has made them worried about spending money? There are always two sides to the story, and it is important to consider the other side, no matter how convinced you are that you are right.
3. Take a 20-Minute Pause
When fighting gets your blood boiling, it can be difficult to think clearly or maintain perspective. You begin to feel angry and want to hurt someone, rather than resolve the issue at hand. Research by John Gottman has shown that taking a 20-30 minute break gives your body time to calm down and reset which helps you regain perspective (take at least 20 minutes, if the break is too short your body won’t have time to calm down). In one study, Gottman had couples engage in problem solving conversations in the lab while their heart rate was monitored. Some couples were forced to take a break and read magazines (while an “equipment issue” was fixed). These couples had their heart rates return to baseline and were able to reset when they returned to their conversation, using more humor and affection than they had before the break and ultimately having more constructive conversations than couples who did not get to take a break. Gottman notes that it is important to time your break for a moment when you both could use it (don’t just walk out while your partner is saying something important to you). You also need to use your break wisely—crafting a list of your partner’s worst traits or using the time to perfect your argument are not going to help, you need to do something relaxing and distracting (take a walk or get some exercise, listen to music that makes you feel good, read an engaging book, look at some of your favorite pictures of your partner).
Learning these techniques is all well and good, but when you are in the middle of a fight and you can feel your blood boiling and your anger rising, it’s hard to think clearly. You don’t want to calmly try to summarize your partner’s point of view or walk away and read a book. You want to win, you want to get your point across, and you want to make the person who hurt you feel bad. So if you want these techniques to work, you have to plan ahead. Make a commitment now to try one of these techniques the next time you are fighting—pick a specific one and tell yourself, “the next time I find myself yelling/crying/mad/etc., I will say this/do this…” And if you fail to do it during the fight, take time after it’s over and you’ve calmed down to reflect back on it using the fly on the wall technique, or try to summarize your partner’s point of view to them when you have time and are both in a place where you can listen. Since most of us just fight about the same thing over and over again, reflecting back on or discussing these fights after the fact can help you deal more constructively with the next one.
More on dealing with conflict:
Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I’m coming from?: Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology,110(2), 239.
Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601.