Keys to Effectively Managing Stress and Conflict in Your Relationship

Keys to Effectively Managing Stress and Conflict in Your Relationship

Today, I am sharing some tips from Esther Perel, therapist, author and podcast host, from her March 2020 interview in The New Yorker, and further expanding on and exploring the keys to managing stress and conflict when it arises in your relationship.  Esther explains,

“I think that couples, by definition, go through harmony, disharmony, and repair. This is a dance that we do no matter what. By definition, we fight. What matters is how you fight. When you get really mad at something, can you afterward say, “O.K., got that out of my system—how are we going to solve this?” or “Look, I realize I was quite unfair. Let me first say what I do appreciate about what you do before I dump on you the whole list of stuff that I don’t think you do?’ “

Let me break it down to the three most important parts of this for me.  Firstly, she is normalizing conflict in couples, noting that all couples go through times of peace, conflict and repair and that is part of a normal relationship process, not a sign of dysfunction.  [Insert sigh of relief here].  This is so true and often misunderstood.  Couples and individuals often see the lack of conflict or waves as the ultimate ideal and goal of a healthy relationship, however this is not realistic because we are humans, and if we are going to be two different people in a long-term relationship, stuff is going to come up and happen.

Secondly, the dance and how you do the dance or mess up the dance and come back and repair is crucial.  If you step on your partner’s toes in this dance, get tripped up, or your partner steps on yours, the key is coming back to it and saying, “Hey, I’m sorry I stepped on your toes, we got all tripped up.  Can we try this again?” or  “Thanks for coming to dance with me and showing up, thanks for trying to learn the moves.  I’m sorry for stepping on your toes.  Can we go a bit slower?  Can we try this again, being a bit more gentle with one another?  Can we laugh and find some humor in this and then try to get into sync again?”  This process creates safety and is the most important part of my work with couples.  I strongly believe and remind my couples and clients often that the goal (for couples/couples therapy) is not to never got off track – that is inevitable and we are human and make mistakes, hurt one another.  The goal is that when we do inevitably get off track, that we know how to find our way back to one another – to reconnect and meet each other on the dance floor again…locking eyes, interconnecting hands, embracing and touching hearts, moving the hips and feet, turning the music back on.  That’s the repair.  That’s what is so beautiful.

Thirdly, Esther talks about starting a conversation by focusing on one or two things that your partner is doing right and appreciating those first, before bringing up an issue, complaint or need.  That is also referred to a “soft startup”, and I think just a basic respect and showing of love and recognition for the other person and their positive qualities and efforts.  This will likely help your partner bring down their walls or drop their weapons, take off their armor.  Then they will be able to hear you, and truly listen.  It is impossible to listen and hear and understand when we feel attacked and are on the defensive, protecting ourselves.  By shielding ourselves from hurt, we are blocking the message our partner is trying to send us and we cannot listen and hear.  Trusting you partner has good intentions and motives are good is key here, so if you do not trust that, you won’t be able to stop protecting yourself and hear.  But if you do believe they genuinely love you, care for you, have good intentions and heart, then try setting aside your armor, laying down your weapons, taking a deep breath and opening up your heart to really hear and try to understand.  This does not mean ignoring, denying or stuffing your hurt or needs away, it just means giving room and space to your partner in that moment.  And at a later time, in a separate and different conversation, it is so important that you bring up your needs, feelings, hurts and issues and hopefully your partner is able to do the same for you – listen and hear, trying to understand.  This is the key to true knowing.

Clients often ask me how to solve and resolve conflict and I have noticed that one of the main and missing ingredients is the experience of feeling heard and seen by your partner.  That is often the main, if not the only, solution needed.  When we feel heard and seen, our nervous system calms down, we feel relief, and we can get into harmony again, thinking “You get it.  You get me.”

Individual and couples therapy are both great ways to get guidance and support in the dance of harmony, disharmony, repair and reconnection.  Please reach out if you would like to discuss how we can work together on the dance in your relationship. You don’t have to do this alone!

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