It’s normal during stressful times to feel like your relationship is also strained. When faced with problems outside their relationship, couples with anxious, controlling, and demanding patterns are more likely to communicate through arguments and blame, blocking off any capacity to work together to discover solutions.
This behavior can cause couples to avoid these difficult conversations altogether. In couple therapy, couples avoiding conflict is not considered to be a good thing. Refusing to communicate or cooperate, feeling shut down, or giving each other contemptuous looks may indicate deeper levels of conflict or fear in need of support. Claiming ‘we never argue’ may also mean we never negotiate difficult things.
So how do we develop the skills to turn denial or destructive arguments into constructive ones?
The first stage of turning a misunderstanding or argument into a constructive plan is to avoid stating our fears and mistrust as if they are facts. For example, one client Mandy, recently discussed how, after lockdown restrictions were lifted slightly, her partner wanted to move her 18-year-old daughter in with them. This led Mandy to state fears as if they were factually true: “she will fill the house with smelly teenagers”, "it will be boys and loud music all the time."
I encouraged her to slow down her thinking, breathe, separate fears from facts and own the feelings. So instead of assuming statements – which was her fear rather than a fact talking – a more accurate statement would be an 'I statement' such as: "I’m worried that if your daughter moves in, you and I will have less space and time together" or "I need to set some boundaries for myself."
The second stage is timing a discussion well. It can take several hours for adrenaline and cortisol to leave the body’s endocrine system, so delaying a conversation until both you and your partner are biologically receptive or less defensive is better than forcing a negative outcome. Couples who take exercise, make love, meditate, or practice yoga together can attune to their calmer hormonal states. By discussing problems after one of these attunement activities, there is less likelihood of defensive or anxious thinking.
The third key skill to ensure difficult conversations don’t turn into conflicts is to ask if what you are about to say is coming from a place of kindness. Is it likely to bring you and your partner closer together, or if it is unkind and likely to push you apart?
Draw a 'stress circle' to help you communicate more effectively with your partner about the stresses you may be faced with. Here's how to do it: