Jun 192011

Kestryl: How about that question about fights?

Sassafras: Do we have to talk about not-cute things?

Kestryl: Well… no healthy relationship is cute all the time.

Sassafras: Can we at least be cute while we’re doing it?

Dinosaurs also experience conflict in their relationships. Crayon drawing by Sassafras Lowrey.

So, a few readers have written to say that they love all the cute relationship tips that have shown up in this blog, but they are curious about how to deal with conflict in relationship… which, admittedly, is not very cute.  Trying to make conflict cute, say by pulling out a finger puppet  in the middle of a fight, rarely leads to a speedy resolution.

Dealing with conflict is all about how you communicate as a couple, and a big part of weathering the storms and squabbles of any relationship is figuring out what you and your partner(s) want and need. It’s also about figuring out exactly what it is that you are fighting about. This sounds self-evident, but you’d be amazed to find how many times you think you’re fighting about who didn’t put the laundry away, when you are actually fighting about someone’s rough day at work, or resentment over a missed phone call. Figuring out what you are fighting about isn’t necessarily something you can do while tempers are flaring.  This is why one of the most important parts of dealing with conflict in a relationship is to not just communicate about your fights, but also about how you fight… and to have those conversations when you’re not already fighting.

Kestryl: We process so much.

Sassafras: That’s because I’m a lesbian.

Kestryl: How did I skip the lesbian phase?

Sassafras: I’m helping you to discover it now. There is nothing better than a good process session.

Kestryl: It could be an Olympic sport!  But to be clear… one doesn’t need to identify as a lesbian to win a gold medal in processing!

Fight (this is a dramatization, with cuteness enhanced). Photo by Syd London.

Of course, you have to be aware of when you’re trying to process your fights and communicate. For instance, it’s probably not a good idea to try to figure out what this afternoon’s fight was about when it’s 2am and you’re both trying to fall asleep.  It’s also seldom a good plan to begin an in-depth process session right before heading to work, or leaving on tour.  Being aware of the scope and magnitude of what needs to be addressed is a component in figuring out how much time and energy it will take to unpack. For example, your sweetie forgetting to pick up the organic kale  on their way home from work may not require a marathon processing session (though it totally could, if it’s indicative of more systemic problems). For bigger conflicts and busy schedules, we’ve found it actually helps to schedule time to process after a fight.  This helps us to be sure that we actually address what happened, instead of just sweeping it aside and letting the anger, annoyance, and hurt feelings ferment into a deeper resentment.

Sassafras: Did I mention we are big lesbians? Seriously, we just confessed to scheduling processing time.

Kestryl: Hey, whatever it takes! Oh, and a caveat: I’m not sure I actually identify with the word ‘lesbian’… even though I sometimes act like one.

Sassafras: True that.

Ok, so you have your processing date scheduled, the soy lattes are on the table, and you and your partner(s) are cooled down and ready to confront whatever conflict is making life more interesting.  What now?  For us, it helps to start by talking about the objective details of what happened, and how it made each of us feel. The classic “I statements” go a long way. Conversely, actively listening is just as important as speaking from your experience and not making accusations.  Try to figure out what the conflict was, what is important to you in your relationship, and what specifically needs to be resolved. Keeping this kind of focus on the present issue and not dragging up how your sweetie didn’t clean the litter box one time three months ago is key to actually resolving the fight and moving forward in a mutually satisfying relationship.  In other words, know when to let it go.

Sassafras: There was that one time you didn’t clean the litter box.

Kestryl: Last time I checked, the litter box was your job.

Sassafras: No, I mean when we first moved in together, and the cats hadn’t accepted me as their step-parent yet.

Kestryl: Are there any other lesbian sterotypes we can fit into this blog?

Even dinosaurs need to communicate after a fight. Crayon drawing by Sassafras Lowrey.

When you’re processing a fight, make time to explore the ways in which you actually interact during conflict. Talk about what works, what doesn’t work, and why.  Many fights escalate because you have different ways of dealing with conflict, and haven’t found a mutually satisfactory compromise.  Figure out ways of fighting that feel okay for both (or all) of you.  For example, in conflict, Kestryl’s natural reaction is to go for a solo walk to create space, in order to allow everyone the opportunity to cool down,  gather thoughts, and sort through emotions so someone doesn’t say something they don’t mean while tempers are flaring.  Conversely, Sassafras–who has been walked out on several past lovers–finds being alone in the house after that door closes immensely difficult…even while knowing that Kestryl will come back.  The compromise we came to many years ago is that to create a space for both of us to cool down, Kestryl will go to another room (usually hir office) instead of leaving the house, but that Sassafras has to respect the space and distance that Kestryl has created and not follow and continue the disagreement.  This gives us both the opportunity to let go of the immediate fight and take care of what we need, while respecting the other’s needs as well.

Conflict is not fun, but knowing how to deal with it is crucial to any healthy relationship. Staying tuned in to what’s important and what’s worth fighting for in your relationship will go a long way.

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