Relationships, Part 37: Constructive Conflict: Be at the Right Time, at the Right Place

If you read my last post about the benefits of conflict in a relationship, then you may be eager to have one. Hold your horses. Don’t have one yet. Conflicts must be well regulated or there may be disaster. The first thing to consider is where and when to bring up the hard stuff.

If you remember all the difficult conversations you have had, some of them might have gone well, some not so well. We tend to blame things that go poorly on the people involved or on the issue. Maybe neither is at fault. Sometimes it’s just the setting or the timing. Think back on the conversations that went poorly. Most often, you had attempted to conduct them at a time or in a place that was not conducive to success.

Consider, and talk with your partner. Where would you and your partner rather have a conversation that might be difficult? There’s no right answer. It’s helpful to acknowledge what you and your partner prefer. Where would things go best?

• In a public place where you might be restrained, or a private place where you can talk freely?
• Looking at one another so that you can see reactions, or looking away, as in a car, where you are not so distracted by reactions?
• Sitting, so you can take your time, or standing, so that you might resolve things quickly?
• Touching, so you feel cared for, or not touching, so you don’t feel clung to? How much touching? How about hugging? Hugging face-to-face or back-to-front?
• Should you be doing something with your hands, like cooking or eating, or put full attention to the conversation?
• Should there be potential weapons around? Do you need a referee?

In a similar way, consider and discuss the timing of when to have a difficult conversation so that it will go best:

• No one does well when they are tired, but when are you tired? Are you a morning person or an evening person? What’s the optimal time of day?
• Most people don’t do well when rushed, when there are not other demands that need to be attended to, like children crying, phones ringing, dogs barking, a job waiting. Can you create a time to have a discussion that might resolve some differences?
• Vacations, get-aways, long car trips, even a weekend at home can be ideal to do this work with your partner. Have you had one lately? Do you need one?
• Or, would it be helpful to have a time limit on the discussion? Hard talks can be tough to take and some people can only tolerate them in limited doses. What’s the optimal length for you and your partner?
• How do alcohol or drugs affect your ability to talk effectively. Can a little bit relax you and loosen your tongue? Or will it disinhibit you, so that you say hurtful things? Does it help you think and speak clearly?
• Do you do better if you know you will be having a discussion on a particular issue so that you can plan and think through what you want to say? Or, if you have the time to plan, do you just get worked up and stew?

Many times, when marriage counseling works, it has nothing to do with the skill of the counselor. It often works because the setting works for conversations. It’s private enough so the whole world doesn’t know your business, but you have a trained referee in attendance. You may sit or stand, look at each other, or not. Juggle a Koosh ball or hold a hand. Touch as much as you want as long as you are still talking. The time you spend in the counselor’s office is bracketed, set aside for the issue. It ends at some point. You have to pay for the time, so you have an interest in making it worthwhile. However, you can’t schedule a marriage counseling session every time you need to have a discussion. Sooner or later, you have to learn to do it yourselves.

As you consider these questions, there may very well be some factors that matter more to you than your partner. You might be a morning person; your partner doesn’t come alive until noon. You might like to be touched; your partner may feel threatened if you touch her while you are discussing a disagreement. You might very well quarrel over where and when to talk about having a conflict. If that is the case, then you have an opportunity to compromise before you even start. Doing it her way may be a pretty good signal to show that you are interested in getting along.

The important thing is that you do not start a difficult conversation just anywhere or at any time. Do it in a thoughtful and considerate way so that all extraneous factors can contribute to success.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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