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How to resolve conflict in a relationship

In 2010, I flew to Norway to study a semester of peace and conflict studies, as part of my Masters. Within this course was a subject on conflict resolution. We studied the UN, world wars, nation-states, and particularly, the recent failures of the international community to intervene in mass genocide (full on, hey?) However, the essential message of the subject was that conflict has occurred for centuries, but has morphed and changed into different, more sinister forms of warfare where it can be difficult to know which side is good and which is bad – who is wrong and who is right. And importantly, failure to act and respond almost always ended up in disaster. Sound kind of familiar?


Then, in early 2012, I got married. This experience – continuing today – has been a whole different learning experience in conflict resolution! It has affected me personally and has meant that the choices I make directly affect how conflict in my life arises and is resolved. I have been forced to recognise the fact that whilst I consider myself a good conflict resolver, sometimes I myself can be the trigger to start the war. I can be the source of the conflict itself!

Conflict resolution is one of the most important skills we can learn in life. This is particularly true in Marriage, but also in families (immediate and extended), workplaces and amongst friends. In fact, I’m about to have a child myself and I have no doubt I will soon learn about conflict resolution in a completely different dimension! (Wish me luck!).

Essentially though, if we can conflict resolve effectively, then we will probably lead happier lives – not harbouring hatred through our stubbornness and refusal to make peace. And isn’t a little more peace what a lot of relationships need?

Rhinos and Hedgehogs
On our marriage course, the pastoral trainers explained a very simple way that we all often revert to in times of conflict in intimate relationships. Essentially, they explained that in couples, commonly we have ‘rhinos’ and we have ‘hedgehogs’. In sum, rhino’s tend to be more quick to anger, and they usually want to get their frustration out straight away. They often blow up, say their bit, and then 5 minutes later – they are fine again! They are called Rhino’s because they ‘charge’ in a fight and don’t hold back! Sound familiar to some of you? 😉

On the other hand, we have hedgehogs. What do we know about hedgehogs? They burrow. They hold things inside, harbour feelings, and rarely release emotions in the moment. On the surface, they may seem fine in the midst of a conflict, slow to anger and able to control their emotions – but in reality, they push the feelings down inside them, swallowing them up. However because we are all human, even hedgehogs then eventually get angry – releasing all those pent up emotions in unhelpful ways. This can be judgement, bitchy comments or insults, or even eventually exploding in anger when they can’t hold things back anymore!

In couples, it’s often the case that one of us is a hedgehog and one is a rhino – one of us charges and one burrows in conflict. Occasionally, you can have two Rhinos or two hedgehogs together, however these couples need to take extra care as there is little ‘balance’ here and they need to make extra efforts to be patient with each other and not explode (Rhinos); or be courageous in bringing up our real feelings when conflicts need to be resolved (Hedgehogs).

As somewhat of a hedgehog, it’s easy to feel that I am much more in control if my emotions than my Husband, an extreme Rhino (we found out!!). I grew up in household where there was a clear Rhino and a clear hedgehog – and I remember promising myself as a kid that I would never become that Rhino. So, I consciously somewhat went the other way – despite the fact that a lot of people who know me are very surprised that very loud me can seemingly ‘keep her cool’ in an argument!

As a hedgehog, It’s easy to feel that in arguments, I have the ‘upper hand’ because I can seem calm and collected – even though half the time, I’m raging on the inside! But of course, hours and/or days later, I will turn to passive aggression. I will make a mean comment here and there, bring up things from the past, and probably even use this to manipulate my husband into doing something I want him to do. Sometimes this is (let me be honest) intentional, but other times it’s not – words or actions just come out from the place inside that I’ve obviously (unsuccessfully) tried to lock down. Thus, it’s important for hedgehogs to understand that they aren’t ‘better’ than rhinos because they don’t explode – because they are equally unhelpful in resolving conflict in a relationship! Sure, the aggression of rhino’s can be shocking and also destructive – but this is no better than passive aggression, which is more insidious. Thus, both rhino and hedgehog strategies are not good strategies in approaching conflict in relationships.

So what can we do about it? It would be easy to say: ‘just practice self-control, patience and tolerance with each-other and see how this improves your relationship!’ – which is completely true, however alone, this is not helpful advice for the difficult times. So, allow me to give you 5 key steps that can help how you better conflict resolve in your relationship. Check them out below…

  1. Show appreciation for one another by focusing on the positives. Always try to remind yourself why you love that person. A helpful way that the marriage course did this was by simple creating a list of 6 things that we appreciate about each other. E.g. “I love the way you get on so well with other people” or “Thankyou for all that you do in our relationship”, or even the super practical – “I really appreciate that you fill the car up with petrol every week!” This helps us to step back and remember why we love that person, and focus on all of the wonderful things they do to put in to the relationship.
  2. Recognise your differences. By understanding how we are different (and we are), we can understand the initial points where each other stands on different topics, particularly those that fuel conflict! For example: How do you and your partner differ in your approach to money (spend or save?); people (time with others or time alone?); planning (stick to your plans or be spontaneous?); or sleeping (go to bed late or get up early?)? There will be a spectrum in our tendencies also – some where we are extreme (can’t go to bed before 1am?) or in the middle (TV is nice sometimes but you also enjoy it off). Here, it’s also imperative to understand how we differ in how we approach disagreements: Do you like to thrash it out or keep the peace – or (like me), are you somewhere in the middle? Knowing how you and your partner approach these issues is key to proactively preventing and decreasing conflict.
  1. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. This one is a simple, practical one we learnt from the course. Essentially, it’s about having a ‘curfew’ for arguments which is reflective of your bedtime. They called it the ’10pm rule’. This means that if things flare up after this time, you both have the right to call the 10pm rule and postpone the argument to a more appropriate time. After all, things always seem a lot worse when you’re exhausted!
  1. Negotiate. In the course, they described the ‘6 practical steps to peace’ in conflict, which all link to the fact that we are not always going to get our way – so it’s essential to negotiate and compromise in order to reach a mutually agreeable decision/position. Here are the 6 steps:
  1. 10pm Rule (as above) and finding the best time to discuss together.
  2. Identify the issue from both of your perspectives (and listen to the other person without interrupting!)
  3. Discuss the issue rather than attack and criticise each other. This means avoiding labelling of each other. For example, phrases that start with ‘you never…’ or ‘you always…’ if negative are almost always going to be destructive. So instead, use ‘I’ statements. E.g. ‘I feel very hurt when….’ so your partner can see the pain or hurt behind your position. Hopefully, this will release their compassion for you instead of having them focus only on the issue at hand.
  4. Work out possible solutions together. If it’s your vibes, you could even make a list and discuss!
  5. Decide on the best solution for now and see if it works out for the situation at hand.
  6. Be prepared to re-evaluate if there still seems to be conflict over the issue.

Remember, even in the times that you feel completely incompatible and misunderstood, our ability to make a decision to change ourselves can be the difference between a resolved or long-term unresolved issue. Importantly, you can only change and be in control of yourself and your reactions – so focus on that and not trying to change your partner into being more who you want them to be.

  1. Forgive fast, Love always. Love can sometimes mean backing down and saying sorry, even if we think we are right. This takes self-control, courage and swallowing our pride – but if it means that your marriage is stronger for it? Do it! Of course, this is easier said than done, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t keep trying!

Forgiveness is an essential part of marriage. When we forgive each-other in love, we make vital steps to peace. However, forgiveness shouldn’t be conditional or selective – we should practice it always, and do it as fast as we can. I’m not saying that fake apologies are the go, but I’m saying that holding on to unforgiveness in our heart is like holding onto a ticking bomb that you could blow you and your partner up at any moment, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Don’t allow unforgiveness to control you, your emotions and your life – forgive as much and as fast as you can, and trust me, you will both feel better for it. It gives freedom, peace and life to a relationship! And of course – we always need to love. Love is all we need – because when love is pure, it flows on to everything that we say and do, and thus brings life to relationships. Love is the answer!

Resolving conflict is not easy and ALL of us need to give and receive grace in order to develop these skills. And yes, conflict resolution are a set of skills that we need to develop. Moreover, these skills need to be developed alongside simultaneously practicing love, forgiveness, patience, self-control and understanding. Laughter (after the fact) can also be super helpful too in diffusing a lot of types of conflict!

We understand that sometimes marriage can feel like a battlefield – but how good would it be if instead of fighting with guns – we fought courageously with love?

If you need someone to talk to about this – because we know sometimes you just need to chat to someone – we would love to help. Email me at Catherine@wearelumi.com.au and we can start a conversation, or I can try and direct you to the best advice 🙂

Good Luck out there!

All my Love,

cat_bioline-01

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