A ‘perfect’ relationship is not one that has no conflict. It’s not that you are so ‘perfectly aligned’ that you never differ. That’s actually a sign that you are either seriously emotionally avoidant and not sharing your true feelings, or that there is a major power differential in the relationship where one always defers to the other.
Of course there is going to be difference – you are different people with different feelings and ideas and wants and needs. You always have and you lways will. From the myriad of small things throughout the day – what you’re having for dinner, who’s picking up the kids from school, through to major life issues like parenting styles, where you live, how you deal with aging parents, and of course sexual issues– you will inevitably differ on many issues.
Does that mean you have to fight and have a fractious relationship? Not at all. But it does mean that you have to develop your relationship skills so that you handle difference well.
I describe this in three ways: how you prevent conflict, how you manage it when it occurs, and how you repair quickly if it goes bad.
As I said, difference is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it has to turn into conflict. A good couple will talk through issues without it escalating into all-out war. This means you are each clear about your own views so you can each express yourself well; that you both pay attention to what the other is saying so that you understand the other’s point of view; and that you can manage your own state to stay calm and assist your partner to stay calm so that the conversation stays clean and constructive.
That all sounds good! But the reality is that sometimes we don’t manage ourselves all that well or don’t listen to our partner well, and that can lead to arguments and fights. What is happening here is that our nervous systems are getting dysregulated so we’re in fight or flight mode and things are getting heated. We’re not in control of ourselves and we’re certainly not paying attention to our partner. They’ve become a threat and we’re protecting ourselves. The ‘us’ is gone.
To manage this situation, we need to learn to soothe our own nervous system, and simultaneously help to soothe our partner’s nervous system. Until your nervous systems are calm again, you’re not going to be able to resolve anything, the ‘rational’ parts of your brain are switched off and your whole body is prioritising resources to protect itself. So, focus on slow deep breathing, maintain a calm tone of voice, use words of affection, put on the kettle or go for a walk. Remember – calm first, and only then can you resolve. This is how you manage yourselves when it gets wobbly.
And, yes, sometimes despite our best efforts things get so heated that we explode and/or storm off, nothing is resolved, and we’re each left feeling angry and hurt and confused and unloved. So, an important skill of good relating is to repair quickly when things go bad. Once your nervous system has regulated, move toward your partner gently, checking to see if they are ready for that (some nervous systems take longer to regulate) and reach out with love. Use ‘we’ language: “We didn’t handle that well”, and reassure that ‘we’ are still good: “I do love you and I’m sorry for my part in that going wobbly”. Then set a time to discuss the issue again, whether it’s there and then or at a more suitable time.
These three vital skills will help you manage the inevitable wobbly times in a healthy relationship: prevent, manage and repair.