A new way to look at conflict in relationships

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Have you ever experienced unresolved conflict with your partner? Perhaps you felt stuck and didn’t know how to reconnect with one another? I have, and I’m sure many of you have as well. We know that conflict is one of the most difficult challenges that we face in a relationship. The inability to resolve conflict impacts our connectedness with one another.

I want to share with you a very important component to resolving conflict that most are unaware of and yet we need to recognize its value. Before I name it – let me briefly share how I discovered it.

John and Beth come to their session – clearly they are angry at each other. They walk into the waiting room arguing and continued to argue as they sit on my sofa. Neither of them desires to be in the same room with one another. It’s obvious that both are feeling hurt, misunderstood and frustrated. I engage in conversation in an attempt to dissect and understand both sides. As the conversation continues – in a blink of an eye – they move out of their anger and they are laughing. Yes, talking and laughing. Sooooo – What happened?

Funny thing is that when I ask both of them this question – they have no idea what I am asking!!!

“Well,” I explain “both of you came in very angry, and now you are laughing and chatting with one another in a peaceful manner! Sooooo – what happened?” (And by the way, this happens with couples all the time!)

They still have no idea. I persist and one finally says, “He said something that made me chuckle inside. It’s a humor that is unique to him and I like it.” Ohhhhh… “so you were reminded of something that you love about your partner?” – “Yes, and then I didn’t feel as angry.”

I was so fascinated by this phenomenon that I decided to research this moment. I refer to it as a “softening moment”.

I discovered that there are countless ‘softening moments’ in relationships. But many go unnoticed.

Why is this important?

Perhaps the most painful moments in my marriage for both myself and my husband are those agonizing experiences when we are stuck in unresolved conflict. Both of us are in pain, although neither one of us recognizes it as pain in the other. In those moments, many see it as stubbornness, not caring or coldness (which is always hurt).

The challenge is that the disconnection is painful, and the idea of reconnecting when we are hurt can be frightening. For example, what if we attempt a conversation that leads to more pain? How do we know that it is (emotionally) safe to attempt to resolve our conflict? Meaning – how can we be assured that we won’t get hurt again?

Recognizing ‘softening moments’ can help.

Ask yourself these questions:

~ In past unresolved conflict, what is it that shifted you from being angry to being ready to have a conversation with your partner?

~ What shifts you from being angry to feeling warmth toward your partner?

~ What shifts you from being hurt and angry to wanting to reconnect with your partner?

~ Are you looking for a way to connect with your partner but you know that clearly they are still upset about an argument? How do you know? How did you draw this conclusion?

Reflection on these moments can provide you with the tools you need to reconnect with your partner when conflict remains unresolved. You will discover your ‘softening moments’. And by sharing what softens you with your partner – they will know two important things about you! One – they will know what you need from them when you are hurt or angry. AND second, your partner will know that their actions impact you in a positive manner.

Keep in mind – a softening moment is simply a small step. It’s a step that allows you to recognize that you can take the next step in attempting to resolve the conflict between the two of you.

What is a Softening Moment?

 It’s a moment when you shift just enough that you might be ready to engage in a conversation or let go of the issue at hand. AND – this is important – it may be a moment that you or your partner attempted to create in your relationship and it has been misinterpreted (or unnoticed).

For example – after an argument, your partner may have texted you “Hello, I’m going to the store after work, can I pick up anything?”

This is a moment that is often misinterpreted. It can be perceived as “ignoring/avoiding the conflict” or “denying that it happened”. However, this is a softening moment. This effort at “safe” communication is an attempt to accomplish two things – first, it is meant to communicate a desire to reconnect and second, it is an attempt to see if it is “emotionally” safe to reach out.

However, there are vast and varied types of softening moments in all relationships!

 I discovered during my interviews that people did indeed have softening moments that they were not aware of until our reflection together. This is what I discovered.

(These are direct quotes from the people that I interviewed!)

Things that are experienced as ‘Softening Moments’:

~ Voice

~ I notice a slight inflection in her voice during an argument and I soften. I know she is trying.

~ I softened when he changed the tone in his voice.

~ Introspection/Self-Awareness

~ I softened when I tried reflecting and understanding why she was frustrated.

~ I softened when I realized the foolishness of the argument.

~ Gestures of Warmth

~ I softened when she made a silly comment about the TV show we were watching together.

~ I softened when he cleaned up my dirty dishes.

~ I softened when he called me unexpectedly.

~ I softened when she brought home my favorite food.

~ Physical Touch

~ I softened when he touched my arm as he walked past me.

~ I softened when she laid her hand on my leg in the car.

~ Uniqueness and Language known only to the two you

~ He made a joke at a party that only the two of us knew the humor.

~ She made a comment about a TV show that is her unique kind of humor.

~ Something else is more important than the conflict

~ I value our relationship more than the issue at hand, so I softened.

~ I didn’t want our date night to be ruined, so I softened

~ We had a distraction about something that both of us care about.

~ Non-Verbal Communication

~ I could see that he was relaxed – not edgy, this softened me.

~ I could see her take a breath and reflect on our conversation – I softened because I knew she was trying.

~ Time

~ I soften when I take time and redirect to another activity.

~ I soften when we take a break and stop talking about the situation at hand.

After Thoughts:

 Regarding softening moments – keep these thoughts in mind.

~ If you make an attempt to soften your partner, it may not have an immediate impact. Don’t be discouraged; it may just take a bit of time.

~ The same is true for you – meaning that you may not be ready to soften when you recognize attempts made by your partner. That’s okay. You can acknowledge that you recognized the ‘softening’ attempt later in your conversation together.

~ Softening Moments may not always have the same impact for each argument depending on the degree to which you or your partner has been hurt.

I do hope that you and your partner discover your softening moments.

Share your Softening Moment! I’ve created a hashtag on twitter #softeningmoments. Please share your softening moment to help others find what softens them!!

Thanks for reading!

*          *          *          *           *

If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!

And you can keep up with my writing on relationships, random thoughts and more by subscribing here.

One more thing… I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. It’s not easy to do, I understand because it took me a long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you. When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. And, if you would like me to blog about a specific topic – let me know! 

If you think this blog will help a friend, please share it with them or share it on Facebook and Twitter!

Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.

Photo Credit: Pedro Fernandes@flickr.com

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A new way to look at conflict in relationships
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A new way to look at conflict in relationships
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Have you ever experienced unresolved conflict with your partner? Perhaps you felt stuck and didn’t know how to reconnect with one another? This is a new way to look at conflict in relationships.
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