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Love Is Work: How to Overcome Conflict in Long-Term Relationships

Love Is Work: How to Overcome Conflict in Long-Term Relationships

Most of us know what it’s like in the early days of our entanglement with “Mr. or Ms. Right.” With the fireworks exploding every time we occupy the same space as our heart’s desire, we sense that the coupling can move mountains and survive the roughest of storms. That optimism is empowering, but does it set us up for disappointment and an inglorious fall?

In the early days of a relationship, the brain is awash in endorphins. Given all the hormonally induced “good feelings,” we view our partners, despite their flaws, as perfect and thoughtful, the soulmate we wait a lifetime to encounter and call our beloved.

As we become more familiar with our partners, and as the chemically-induced celebration in the brain begins to subside, we recognize that no person – and no relationship – is perfect. In fact, maintaining a healthy relationship after the “courtship” phase takes time, patience, and practice. Yet if one is willing to listen and “look in the mirror” from time to time, conflicts can be addressed and overcome.

Love Is Work: How to Overcome Conflicts in Long-Term Relationships

Love Is Work: How to Overcome Conflict in Long-Term Relationships

In this piece, we look at the major antecedent of conflict – the precursor – and discuss how to move beyond conflict in a way that strengthens the relationship. Since we're talking about relationships though, the tools offered to the reader are only impactful if one is willing to recognize that conflicted couples “tango” their way into conflict -- that is, each partner plays a role in the relational duress.

There are no winners when a marriage or long-term relationship disintegrates. Yet when the trouble arrives, there is a real possibility of healing if the partners recognize that “all hands on deck” can move the relationship forward.

The real issue: faulty communication

The most common mistake couples make while trying to resolve conflicts is to respond before they have the full picture. This inevitably leads to arguments. When people respond too quickly, they often respond to the wrong issue.

READ: Stop Fighting! 4 Steps to Improve Communication for a Healthier, Stronger Relationship

The biggest issue facing partners is poor communication, not money. When individuals are unable to share information, concerns, joys, and struggles in an articulate and considerate way, the glow of the relationship can dull and eventually tatter. Even individuals in extremely strong, enduring partnerships face communication hiccups from time to time. Why? Call it genetics. Despite the relentless progression of evolution, we are all still wired to “protect our turf” and safeguard our future. As marriage therapist Gary Thomas asserts, “Instead of listening, our impatient souls immediately want to provide commentary. Our natural, arrogant selves are eager to speak, to be heard, and to be understood. We can’t wait to express our opinion, state our outrage, or make clear our intentions.”

When we are amid a disagreement with another individual – even an intimate partner – our genetics have us in a defensive posture. We interject while the partner is speaking, we project our own anxiety and anger onto the other, and we begin to utilize the dreaded “you language.” What’s “you language”? You should know this by now! (That was an example.)

READ: Listen and Learn: How to Stop Blaming and Start Building Bridges

“You language” is a mode of interpersonal communication that puts the speaker in the position of power as he or she projects assumptions and feelings onto the person on the receiving end of the exchange. YOU don’t care about my feelings! YOU are not investing in our relationship! YOU put everyone else’s needs ahead of mine! When a person is delivering a volley of “you language” to an intimate partner, the message is clear: I know what you’re thinking, and I know your intent.

The person hearing the “you language” may feel disempowered – attacked and small - and therefore may project their own assumptions and feelings onto to the partner who initiated the exchange. As the dance of faulty communication quickens, deeper insults are slung, the original “issue” of the conversation is lost, and the damage can intensify. “You language” disallows the “give and take” exchange of perspectives. Sadly, if you already find yourself in a long-term rut of “you language” conversations, you may find that your partnership’s sustainability now depends on intervention from a professional.

The remedy: Communication for the long game

The most important skill for long-term relationships is listening to your partner in a way that they can’t possibly doubt that you love them.

Now that we’ve established the partnership pitfalls that come with faulty communication, we explore the obvious remedy: healthier communication. If one seeks to reestablish the marriage or partnership bond as a sacred space for healthy dialogue – even in seasons of conflict – then one must put two important tools into practice, namely active listening and “I feel language.”

Active listening is a process whereby partners involved in a conversation validate the other’s perspective by remaining attuned to what is being said, and then affirming the perspective through feedback. “I hear you saying” is a feedback refrain that lets the partner know that what was said was heard and understood.

For instance, one partner may tell the other, “I hear you saying that I am spending too much time at work and not enough time with the family.” In response, the other partner may simply affirm what was said or respond with a correction like, “No, I said I am concerned that you are working so much that it is hurting your health.” The active listening tool depicted above helps to clarify miscommunication while validating the idea that everyone is entitled to speak.

READ: These 5 Things Help Keep Couples Connected and Strong

Accompanying active listening is the vital “I feel” procedure. Used in place of “you language,” “I feel language” allows the speaker to take ownership of his or her perspectives. “I feel threatened by your actions” is received by the hearer in a softer manner than “YOU are threatening me!” Coupled with active listening, “I feel language” kindles strong dialogues that communicate information to your partner in an engaging, life-giving way.

Final thoughts

Relationships that break down often fall victim to faulty communication. If partners can recognize that their communication is unhealthy, they can take the first steps of replacing bad communication patterns with strong ones. Remember, it takes two to tango. It’s not your partner’s fault that healthy communication is on the wane; rather, the whole relationship needs a communication reboot.

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