Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: pexels.com
This summer has been a rather odd one for me thus far. On the one hand, I’ve had so many amazing moments; on the other hand, it’s also been filled with quite a bit of stress. As I said to my therapist today: at times it feels like I’m not so much living my life as much as my life is living me. At times of stress, our relationships tend to suffer, not just with our romantic partners but also with other loved ones. It’s really easy to end up in a major conflict when you’re already feeling overwhelmed. Your nervous system just can’t take any more.
Somehow, however, my partner and I have been able to steer clear of really big arguments, even though we ran into a fair bit of conflict here and there. Being on holiday with young children is stressful as it is (according to my therapist, taking a vacation is actually on the list of stressful life events), but we also joined hands in getting my partner’s house ready to go for sale since he’ll be moving in september. Both being pretty agitated over this situation and dealing with 5 kids in the mean time meant that we were quite sensitive to triggers. Since we know this, I think we used a couple of strategies to help us sail through these stormy waters without getting (too) wet. Perhaps they can be of use to you someday as well…
We’ve learned, through error, of course, that engaging in discussions when both of us are feeling stressed is an absolute no go. Invariable the decibels go up, I get more defensive, he might get more frustrated, and no one ends up feeling better in the end. In those cases, we try to take a break from the discussion to let ourselves calm down. Usually one of us will call this out and say something like: “We’re both too stressed out to talk about this.” Or “I really need to calm down before I can talk about this sensibly.”
If one of us is upset and the other is able to remain calm, we can try to help the other person calm down by offering kind support, empathy and love. That is, as long as we can do it authentically. We have very strongly developed BS-radars when it comes to each other (sometimes annoyingly so!)
When we notice that there doesn’t seem to be space to handle a disagreement or a difficult emotion, we come back to it later. During our holiday in France, for example, we ended each night with a check-out (see my post on this simple but very powerful practice here), which gave us a chance to deal with conflicts that we didn’t have room for during the day. But there are also times where we just take the time to get out of the children’s earshot, or wait until we have taken a shower.
During those times of shelving the issue for a bit, and after my nervous system has cooled off substantially, I try to work out for myself what is really bothering me in this. What triggers me and why? What do I really want or need in this situation? Where does my stress come from specifically? I might be getting upset at my partner due to stress at work, or I might get upset at my daughter’s dirty clothes because it triggers a memory of someone getting angry with me over a similar thing.
The real difficulty for my partner and I lies in what each of us needs during times of conflict. My desire is for space and room to breathe, whereas my partner really needs reassurance and connection at those moments. When we’re both stressed out, it seems very difficult to give the other person what they need most. I can’t get myself to hug my partner, at that point, and he finds it difficult to leave me to myself for a bit. We’re slowly learning, through much practice, how to give the other person some space or reassurance, and we try to make up for it in plenty after the connection is going strong again.
Avoiding the big fights is not something you do when that once-a-year-fight finally hits you, it’s something you do by managing all the little conflicts in between in the best way possible. We don’t leave any skeletons un-dealt with so they can jump out of closets in the coming years, and we don’t go back into issues that have been resolved before. Case closed means case closed.
Our conflict styles differ, but rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, I like to think of them as complementary. My desire to avoid conflict means I’m usually the one urging is to take a breather first. His desire to hash out things as soon as possible, means he makes sure we get to talking about it. It works out for us.
If there’s anything I’d want you to take away from this post, it’s this: when you feel angry, when your nervous system is getting flooded, realise that you’re not going to be the best version of yourself for dealing with conflict in your relationship. You’ll be great at fighting off assailants or wild animals, but you might want to wait for a quieter time to deal with someone you wish to keep safe and happy.
What’s your conflict style like? What happens when you find yourself in an argument and have you found tricks that work really well to keep yourself and the other person feeling understood and respected?
Feel free to share! I love to learn from what works for you!