It is common for cycles of conflict to emerge in relationships. These patterns can show up around certain topics like money, sex, or parenting. Or they can be covert by showing up at what feels like unexpected times. If recurring conflict often ends with further emotional injury, underlying emotions and needs are likely not effectively being communicated or being heard. When defensiveness or criticism shows up, it relates to missing some helpful puzzle pieces to the conversation. This invites confusion, frustration, and even fear that we are not feeling heard or that our partner isn’t hearing us. And sadly what can follow is further emotional injury and less connection. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The following strategies are ways to break the cycle of conflict to better understand yourself and your partner.
Take a moment to notice what happens within your body and breathe. Usually, when defensiveness arises, our bodies are detecting danger. Our fight, flight, and freeze responses might be activated. If it does, symptoms appear such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, or temperature, rapid breathing, and tension. Our bodies are very smart and attuned to our environments. But sometimes, they miss the cue that we are safe due to perhaps past trauma or difficult conversations that didn’t go well before. It is important to take time to recognize that for ourselves in order to remind our bodies that we are safe. Deep breaths are the quickest and most effective way to aid our bodies in slowing down and shifting toward our partners in a different way rather than defensively.
Use “I statements”
Emotions can be helpful messengers that aid us in naming our experience for ourselves and our partner. “I statements” are helpful tools to communicate our feelings in a way that encourages our getting listened to. An “I statement” sounds like “I feel frustrated when I come home and the house is messy.” These statements: 1. Help us name, honor, and communicate our experience, 2. Take the blame away from our partner because we are owning our own emotions, not criticizing by saying “You didn’t clean up the house.” and 3. Help name the pattern that emerges between you both. Be careful though, an I statement is not “I feel like you…” That’s that defensiveness trying to sneak back in. Try to stick to yourself and your own emotions in the moment.
If there is a conflict between two people, both partners always play a role in the pattern. Whether you are yelling back or walking away or anything in between, each behavior contributes to the kind of understanding and therefore connection each partner will feel. When you see or hear your partner do something, what that does bring up for you? And how do you respond or react to that experience? Do you yell back? Do you shut down? Recognizing our own actions can invite partners to turn towards one another and promote dialogue around what is happening for each of them.
Offer a repair
Repairs are short phrases that act as detour signs amidst conflict, guiding us back to the main highway of conversation. They are phrases like: “I’m feeling defensive, can you rephrase that?” or “I didn’t mean it like that, can I try again?” or “I need things to be calmer right now.” These statements are seemingly small but play a huge role in lessening our defensiveness as well as our partner’s.
Confusion is a common emotion, especially when conflict arrives. And it often implies that we are missing information. This can be about our own self or our partner. To better understand your own reaction, ask yourself questions about where that defensiveness is coming up for you. Was it the way something was said? Is there a past experience with the tone or topic itself that is activating you? Were there things that happened in your day that contributed to your feeling a bit on edge or sensitive? Are there some basic needs that are falling short like a good night’s sleep or needing water? In order to better understand your partner when feeling defensive, ask them questions to understand them. Questions like “What do you mean when you say ___?” or “That sounded harsh, why did you say it like that?”
Gauge your emotional temperature
Keep in mind, if we get to an activated place where we feel out of control or are saying things we don’t mean that are laced with resentment and pain, it’s best to take a break. Pause the conversation in order to self-soothe prior to coming back to the conversation. It would be best to talk with your partner before either of you is activated to develop a plan around how to pause conversations if and when either needs it. After pausing, make a plan to bring your body back to baseline levels of heart rate and calm. Things that distract you from the conflict itself like changing your scenery by going outside, playing a game, reading something, exercising, etc. Equally important is ensuring you both come back to address what you were talking about.
Explore each other’s history
Defensiveness and criticism come from somewhere. It was likely activated by how something was said or a painful past bubbling up. Exploring the history of what is so activating for us can help us better understand what happens to us and why. Not only does this also encourage us to access our own needs at the moment, but it lends itself to communicating those needs with our partner. Those needs provide clarity for our partners on how to best support us. If we don’t know what we need, how can our partners possibly know?
Conflict is inevitable
The goal is not necessarily to eliminate conflict. It is how the conflict is addressed or how the pattern takes place that matters in order to promote understanding and connection in the midst of conflict. A danger with this conflictual pattern is that it divides partners. One way to think about it is that the pattern is the problem, not the partners. To address these perpetual issues, couples can look at what is happening and break it down more clearly to understand what happens for each of them when it arises. Normalizing difficult conversations can help create new patterns around conversations that before ended poorly to ending with clarity and connection. This can be empowering in that it aids the couple in coming together to tackle it versus further pushing them apart, ultimately breaking that cycle of conflict.