Many of us were taught to fear conflict. In truth, conflict doesn't always mean things are bad, nor is conflict unusual in relationships. When we handle conflict with care, it can increase understanding and deepen intimacy in relationships.
Healthy and long-lasting relationships are filled with empathy, validation, and generosity. If your partner says and believes something you don't, try validating the world from "their" point of view instead of criticizing them.
Focus on seeing through your partner's eyes and hearing from their point of view, not yours. Avoid criticizing, interrupting, judging, or interpreting what your partner says. Instead – be quiet and focus on listening with curiosity.
When you expect something from your partner, discuss it with them. Be direct with your wants and needs – don't expect your partner to be a mind reader. This can happen with all couples, even those together for a long time. Assume that your partner doesn't know what you want, even if you have shared it with them repeatedly.
Let's take a look at six ways to communicate better in your relationship and manage conflict in a healthier manner.
Six Tips To Manage Relationship Conflict
Tip #1 – Avoid Using Terms Like Always and Never
I advise couples not to allow a sentence to start with any of the following:
"You never do this…"
"You always say that…"
That's making a statement that excludes even one exception to the rule you're trying to lay down.
It may feel good to utter such sweeping judgments when you're angry, but they do nothing for your relationship. Instead, qualify and leave your partner an escape, such as:
"For the most part…"
Or, "More than I like…"
Then you're giving credit where it's due, acknowledging the (admittedly few) times your partner might have said or done whatever you're accusing them of doing.
Tip #2 – Ask For What You Want In Your Relationship
Yes, you should ask for what you want – in any relationship. In therapy, this is sometimes called symbiosis, which is thinking that your partner thinks and feels just like you do and should "just know."
They may have been that intuitive during the romance stage, but that's because of all the love hormones, and you were both closely observing one another. The purpose was to bond you together, not set the entire tone for your relationship. If you expect it to, you'll be disappointed.
Tip #3 – Use The Imago Dialogue In Your Relationship
Dr. Harville Hendrix's Imago Relationships Therapy (IRT) model creates a safe space for effective communication using Intentional Dialogue. This dialogue tool breaks down the idea that your partner should see the world the way you want him to and vice versa.
Most couples engage in a monologue, not a dialogue. So, I use the Imago Dialogue with all couples. It emphasizes mirroring, validation, and empathy, which offers a healthier and more realistic way to communicate.
Tip #4 – Mirroring When Communicating With Your Partner
The first part of the Intentional Dialogue communication skill is mirroring. One partner sends information, and the other receives it. The Sender delivers all the information relating to one topic until they're entirely finished, using short declarative sentences that start with the word "I."
The Receiver doesn't interpret, diminish, or magnify what was said but repeats it like a parrot and then asks:
"Did I get it?"
And "Is there more?"
Until the Sender says, "No, that's all."
For example, your partner might say:
"I'm upset you didn't clean up after the dog, even though we agreed you would."
You'd then say, "I heard you say you're upset that I didn't clean up after the dog when we agreed I would."
Then you add, "Did I get it?"
And "Is there more?"
The Intentional Dialogue prevents common intimacy-blocking behaviors, such as:
Dominating the conversation
Interrupting and finishing your partner’s sentences
Being overly critical
Being too close-mouthed when your partner speaks
Failing to pay close attention to your partner
Being judgmental by interpreting what you think your partner is saying
Or walking away from the conversation
The couple's dialogue is a powerful tool to counteract any intimacy-blocking behavior and helps create a space for couples to be intentional in communication.
Tip #5 – Validate When Communicating With Your Partner
This is the second part of Intentional Dialogue. After your partner finishes what they're saying, you validate what you heard them say—not from your point of view but theirs. The Receiver says:
"What you're saying makes sense to me. From your point of view, I can see why you'd think this way."
To be clear – you’re not agreeing with your partner. You are simply validating your partner’s point of view. For that moment, you're looking through your partner’s eyes, not your eyes. You are validating the way your partner views the world.
By validating your partner, you’re also acknowledging that your perspective is not the only way to view the conflicts in your relationship. You are making space for both points of view. For most people, this can be very hard. Because we live in a world where what makes a person right makes another person wrong. Wars break out because of this mentality.
When you tell your partner "what you say makes sense," it might suggest that you agree with them and that you are wrong. This is important to understand that this isn't what you are saying. By validating your partner, you temporarily suspend your point of view and let your partner's reality surface.
Tip #6 - Empathize When Communicating With Your Partner
The final part of the Intentional Dialogue is to imagine what your partner might be feeling, given what they are saying. Here again, you put aside whatever you're feeling, contain it, and try to imagine their point of view. What is your partner feeling?
After the Sender is finished and the Receiver has mirrored back, validated, and empathized, the partners then switch roles but stick to the same topic so as not to stack up issues. This allows both partners' realities to coexist – space for both partners in the relationship.
When tensions or unspoken frustrations build up, we can become overly reactive, which increases the conflict even further. Imago Therapy implements other communication techniques to help further with conflict and communication, and there are a lot of great books by Dr. Harville Hendrix to learn more.
The above Intentional Dialogue tool has been proven to be helpful for couples who are trying to respond in more effective ways to manage conflict in their relationship. Without response-ability, your brain will react instinctively, creating distance, rupture, and disconnection from your partner.
With too strong an emotional charge, we "know better than" our partner and ultimately become righteous, responding emotionally and inappropriately.
I am hopeful we all continue to grow and evolve in our relationships to treat one another with greater care, kindness, compassion, and love.
If you are struggling in your relationship with communication or conflict, we're here to help. Check out our virtual and in-person Imago Relationships Workshops and Imago Relationships Therapy.
Discover more about Imago with our Imago Professional Membership, Imago Professional Facilitators, Imago Professional Training, and Imago Insights Education.
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This blog post was written by Joe Kort, Ph.D., LMSW, Imago Certified Relationship Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist & Supervisor of Sex Therapy.
Joe is a leading expert on sex and relationships. He specializes in Out-of-Control Sexual Behaviors (OCSB)/“sex addiction,” Relationship Problems and Marital Conflict, Sex Therapy, Sexual Identity Concerns, Depression, Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His practice is located in Royal Oak, Michigan, and he welcomes clients from all over the Metro Detroit area. Joe is also available for long-distance coaching and consultation. His practice is mixed with straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and couples.
Joe graduated from Michigan State University with dual Psychology and Social Work majors. At Wayne State University, he earned his Master's in Social Work (MSW), then a Masters (MA) in Psychology, and has received his Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Clinical Sexology from the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists (AACS).
In addition, Joe is also the founder and director of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health (his associate's biographies can be found here), teaching faculty at the University of Michigan Sexual Health Certificate Program, a Board Certified Sexologist, a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers, a member of the National Association of Certified Social Workers, a member of EMDRIA Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Basic Training, and a licensed clinical social worker in the state of Michigan.
Joe has also written a book to help couples and individuals on Amazon.com called Erotic Orientation: Helping Couples and Individuals Understand Their Sexual Lives.