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Constructive Conflict

Is there such a thing ? Most men live in situations that become heated from time to time, but the quality of our relationships could very well depend on how we react under fire. The good doctor offers some pointers.

We never argue”.

Whenever I hear couples say this, my skin crawls. While the books say it is O.K. to feel anger, I guess it’s how you express that anger that is one of the keys to a mutually fulfilling relationship. The key word here is mutual.

Both partners need to work out a system for expressing anger that works for them, if not all of the time then certainly most of it. Avoid conflict in a relationship, and there will be a cost somewhere down the track.

I have heard many funeral eulogies where it has been stated that the deceased “never said a bad word to anyone”. If the widowed partner hasn’t raised his or her eyebrow at this stage, I’m left wondering if this is what s/he actually died of – a lifetime of repressed feelings.

Arguing and resolving conflict is as part of a relationship as intimacy and love is. Too much can obviously wreck a relationship. But equally, none at all can make couples just fizzle out. Admittedly, most things aren’t worth fighting over, but if there is a voice inside you somewhere that needs to be heard, ignore it at your peril.

Most people are very uncomfortable around anger. More often than not it is associated with physical violence and getting hurt. In a relationship, a lot of blokes do one of two things. They submit, or they lash out.

Submitting behaviour includes leaving the situation, hiding in the garage/bedroom/shed/toilet, saying nothing, ignoring, sulking. Lashing out is at the other extreme. It’s usually a complete over-reaction to the situation. It can be verbal or physical, and usually the root cause of the conflict is totally lost.

There is a middle ground however, and it really takes practice to argue positively. Here are a few pointers. If there are children to consider, these ideas may have to be modified to account for them.

As soon as you start leaving a frictional situation, stop, turn around and walk back into the room. It’s perfectly natural to want to leave, but try really hard to stay. It’s a really hard thing to do sometimes, but that very action will speak volumes to your partner.

It’s a good idea then to sit down, say nothing, and invite your partner to keep on talking (or shouting, screaming, and ranting) until finished. You sometimes have to weather a fairly violent storm, but this act of “giving” is very powerful, and enables you to calm down and collect your thoughts.

You can even take notes if you are calm enough.

When it’s your turn, the first thing to do is say the words that are in your head. Phrases like “I don’t agree”, “This is what I think”, “In my opinion”, or the good ol’ “I feel …” are all good starts. Try and keep your thoughts and phrases very short and simple.

You don’t even have to give a reason why you disagree. Just stating that you do, will suffice initially. The whole idea is simply to get the thought from inside your head, out to your partner.

Ignore the tears. This is perhaps the most important point, and the hardest one to do. Do not lose your focus because the other person is dissolving into floods of tears. It sounds highly sexist, but unfortunately it happens in just about every decent argument.

This is the time to be a bit heartless. The other person will actually respect you staying with an argument, although this probably won’t be evident in the heat of battle. (hey, it sometimes makes making up afterwards even more fun !).

Perservere. Stay with it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. It’s O.K. if there is no resolution at the end of it. Agree to disagree if the argument has run its course. As crazy as it sounds, you can even book a time in your diaries for a follow up.

Making the argument “formal” can give you time to crystalise and hone your thoughts, and can even give a humourous slant to things that might make you wonder what all the fuss is about. Something different like this, which throws in a curve ball of sorts, can diffuse even the most tense of situations.

If you have enough space in your house, another idea is to have a “conflict room”. Go there whenever things are boiling over. The idea is to close the door, and put everything out “on the table”. Make sure absolutely nothing is left unsaid, it’s complete open slather.

Once you leave that room however, the conflict stays in the room. Life carries on as though nothing happened. There are no lingering grudges, no bickering, no atmospheres. Any follow ups are done back in the “conflict room”. This is obviously hard to do with kids in the family, but some kind of arrangement can usually be worked out.

If the other person storms out, stay exactly where you are, and say out loud that you are staying put. Shout it out if needed, but do it in a “matter-of-fact” way, not tinged with highly strung emotions (again, not always easy). That way the other person knows that you’ll still be there when they (hopefully) calm down a bit and return to the fray.

Ban the word “sorry” from the conversation right from the outset. Whatever each person has to say, is to be said with conviction. Operate from the heart, it doesn’t really matter if the words come out wrong, just keep talking from a feeling point of view.

Having a good argument, and staying with it to the end, can actually be a real buzz. Some real life altering insights and wisdoms can be gained for both parties. I mean it. The main thing is to keep each other safe, and have a few definite rules (like no hitting, no arguing when drunk, and time outs if one person needs it).

Try to centre yourself and remain as calm as possible, while still putting your viewpoint across. If things are getting out of control or off the point, go with it, but try and steer the conflict back on track if you can, or take a “time out”.

And remember, your partnership is for life, it’s worth stepping outside the comfort zone occasionally. Maybe, just maybe, you both might enjoy the best sex you’ve ever had when it’s time to kiss and make up.

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