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How to Stop Conflict With Your Partner Before It Starts

Tips on how to handle yourself and communicate with your partner when you don’t agree with them

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When visualizing a long-term partner, we talk about “meeting our match.” But the phrase takes on a whole different meaning when you’re having an argument.

And arguments are part of any romantic partnerships, says Harville Hendrix, 88, who holds a doctorate in psychology and religion and is the coauthor of the book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. It’s just human nature to think we’re right and the other person is wrong, he says.

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It’s what happens next that can be detrimental to a relationship, says Hendrix, because then “we feel we have to correct them or polarize them or get rid of them.”

And we don’t necessarily learn how to handle disagreements better with age. Thirty-six percent of adults getting divorced in the U.S. are 50 and older — and the only age group with an increasing divorce rate is adults 65 and older, according to the Gerontological Society of America.

So how do two people who inevitably already have their own ideas about what is right learn to peacefully coexist without giving up their identity and perspective – and their partnership?

Make clear communication a top priority

A tenet of Hendrix’s and his wife and coauthor, Helen LaKelly Hunt’s therapy strategy is mirroring when your partner says something. Repeat what you heard in your own words, and then ask your partner, “Did I get that?” Continue mirroring until the answer is “Yes.”

From there, feel free to move to a place of curiosity and ask, “Is there more you’d like to say?” Usually, the therapists say, there is, says Hendrix. Next, validate and empathize, says Hendrix. Validation doesn’t mean you agree; it means you are telling your partner that you understand why they think or feel the way they do. Empathizing, trying to put yourself in their shoes, can be as simple as saying, “I imagine that must make you feel sad.”

Conversations like this help turn anger into curiosity.

Once you’ve gotten past the anger and potential conflict, “Then you can move on to collaboration,” says Hendrix.

Know your triggers

Triggers often are unhealed wounds from childhood — we’re not seen, or heard, or treated with enough respect, for example — so bringing a sense of wonder about them can go a long way, says Linda Bloom, a 77-year-old psychotherapist and marriage counselor based in Santa Cruz, California. ​

That can be challenging, given that triggers can elicit very strong emotional and behavioral reactions.

“The therapist community has a saying,” notes Bloom, “ ‘If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.’ ”

Bloom and her psychotherapist husband, Charlie Bloom, recently released their fifth book on relationships, An End to Arguing: 101 Valuable Lessons for All Relationships.

Charlie, 77, identifies as a “freedom fighter” because he appreciates alone time. Linda identifies as a “connector” because she values spending lots of time together.

Before coming up with language around this difference, the couple, married 51 years, frequently fought about it: Charlie felt controlled, Linda felt isolated.

Now they understand that they simply have different ways of putting fuel in their tanks. Linda now encourages Charlie to go on retreats and doesn’t take his absence as rejection. Charlie, meanwhile, “stretches into my world and makes sure we have connection time every single day,” Linda says.

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Set up a specific time to talk about something serious

If you want to have a serious conversation, ask whether it’s a good time to talk.

“Your partner is always running a movie, and it’s about your partner’s life,” says Hendrix. “When you go up and start talking, you’re putting your movie on your partner’s screen without asking.”

Asking permission first is about honoring boundaries and showing respect. If you’re on the receiving end of the question and you’re either unavailable or not ready, consider starting your answer with something like this: “Now is not a good time, but I really want to hear what you have to say.” Then give the time you will be available.

You can even make these weekly or biweekly — and put them on your calendar if necessary.

The purpose is to create a safe space to talk about what has come up during the week, according to Jennifer Thompson, former executive director of the Delaware and New Jersey chapters of the National Association of Social Workers.

“You could say, ‘This is what’s going well for me right now, but I’d like to see a shift in this direction.’ Just being proactive can often ward off getting to a boiling point where things are really tense and conversations are difficult to have.”

Get in touch with your own feelings

Think about what you need to clear your head and process what — and how — you want to communicate, says Thompson. “It’s about self-investigation and knowing what’s going to make you feel affirmed, while giving you space to get your thoughts together.”

Also, instead of focusing on what is wrong with your partner, talk about how you are feeling — it’s all about using “I,” says Charlie Bloom. 

“ ‘You’ statements often come across as judgment and cause the other person’s anxiety or fear to amp up even more. We want to cool things down, because if we don’t, our automatic defensiveness creates a downward spiral and then we go down the rabbit hole.”

Negativity already bubbling up? Have a code word.

Code words are a key way Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt, 75, keep irritations from escalating into fights. If LaKelly Hunt, also a therapist, says “watermelon,” Hendrix knows he may have used an uninviting tone of voice or looked at her with hard eyes instead of soft eyes, and he needs to start a repair. His code word for her is “marshmallow.”

“We used to say ‘ouch,’ but we found that we could say it in a very negative way,” Hendrix says. “But it’s hard to say ‘watermelon’ in a very negative way. There are too many syllables.” And it’s worked. The couple has been married for 40 years.

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Don’t expect everything to change all at once

Because we’re often dealing with patterns developed over decades, it’s almost guaranteed that developing new insights and conflict-resolution habits will take more time than we think it should, says Charlie Bloom.

But do try to avoid thoughts such as “This is just how I’m wired.”

“We have to challenge our beliefs about ourselves,” Charlie Bloom continues. “We’re all capable of greater change within ourselves than we realize is even possible. "

Some conflicts may come up for years, even with valiant efforts to repair, so it’s better to think about “managing” them rather than “resolving” them.

“The most skillful people who can manage conflict will understand that the outcome has to be one in which both people don’t necessarily win, but are satisfied with the outcome,” Charlie Bloom adds. “If you win at the other’s expense, that’s always going to come back to bite you — without exception.”

Show physical love to ease the tension

Perhaps after an emotional conversation, share a hug, a fist bump or some other act of physical connection that prompts a smile.

“Sometimes people make the relationship so heavy and serious that they lose sight of why they got together in the beginning — and why they’re still together,” says Linda Bloom. “They should look at their partner more often through the eyes of appreciation and gratitude for the qualities they bring to the relationship.”

And if you’re lucky, maybe those smiles will turn into laughs.

“A person can’t laugh and feel angry at the same time,” says LaKelly Hunt.

Get help from the professionals

Your needs, your communication styles, your station in life — everything changes. Developing an internal toolkit with a therapist, either on your own or together as a couple, can help you be better prepared to deal with what comes your way.

“Therapy is a really good way to have somebody else weigh in on how you’re processing things,” Thompson says. “You may be asked questions you may not be asking yourself. You don’t have to go all the time — just enough to get skills and continue to grow together.”

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