There was somewhat of a dark joke that was floating among couples counselors when the pandemic first hit and lockdowns began that business would be booming soon. While it started off as a joke, unfortunately it has become much more of a reality as the pandemic has continued. I’ve personally seen more couples in therapy this year than I have my entire counseling career. People are stuck together and realizing that they just don’t like each other the way they thought they did, or do not get along well when they do not have time for themselves. You add children to the mix and it becomes even more complicated. The following are some skills you can try to start utilizing to cope with conflict and communication difficulties with your partner.
Fair Fighting Rules
If you take nothing else away from this article, at least memorize these rules! They will make all the difference in how arguments with your significant other pan out and whether you are able to come to a resolution or not. Arguments are going to happen, it’s inevitable (particularly if you’re stuck in the same one-bedroom apartment with someone for 11 months), so it’s important to learn skills that allow you to have non-offensive and productive arguments. These rules will not come easily at first, but the more you practice them, the more second-nature they’ll become.
The fair fighting rules are as follows:
- Before you begin, ask yourself why you feel upset
- Discuss one issue at a time
- NO degrading language
- Express your feelings with words and take responsibility for them
- Take turns talking. No talking over one another!
- No stonewalling (stonewalling is when you retreat into your shell and refuse to talk further)
- No yelling
- Take a time-out if things get heated
- Attempt to come to a compromise or understanding (if you can’t come to a compromise, merely understanding can come soothe negative feelings)
Making room for alone time has always been essential to healthy relationships, but is even more critical now that we are on lockdown. Alone time doesn’t necessarily mean you lock yourself in a room somewhere with the lights off and blanket wrapped over your head. Alone time can also mean having passions and hobbies that you enjoy doing on your own/with friends without your partner present. If you spend all of your waking time with your partner, it has the potential to develop into a codependent relationship, which is unhealthy.
Alone also allows you time to process and decompress. Now more than ever I don’t think people are taking enough time to just sit, and think, and be with their emotions. We are expected to continue living as if this past year hasn’t been unimaginably difficult. Make sure that you plan alone time throughout your week to do your own activities. Alone time is also a great way to schedule self-care into your routine.
And remember, absence makes the heart grow fonder! A little alone time might kindle the romance you may be missing.
It is very important in any relationship to make sure that boundaries are not only made clear, but also respected. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known someone for twenty years, or one month, in order for a relationship to be healthy personal boundaries must be valued and placed in high importance. I have had couples come to session and explain that their partner doesn’t trust them, only for them to later admit that they look through each other’s phone without permission. This is a simple, and pretty common, violation of boundaries that could place any relationship in a lot of trouble.
Boundaries come in several categories, including physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, material, and time based. Physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical touch. Healthy physical boundaries include an awareness of what’s appropriate, and what’s not, in various settings and types of relationships. Intellectual boundaries are one’s thoughts and ideas; respecting intellectual boundaries includes respect for others’ ideas, and an awareness of appropriate discussion (ex. It might not be appropriate to talk about politics at work, but it may be fine to do so among friends). Emotional boundaries refer to a person’s feelings and healthy emotional boundaries include limitations on when to share, and when not to share, personal information. Sexual boundaries include the emotional, physical, and intellectual aspects of sexuality. Healthy sexual boundaries involve mutual understanding and respect of limitations and desires between sexual partners. Material boundaries are things like money and possessions; in order to practice healthy material boundaries one must set limits on what they will share, and with whom (the cell phone example is an example of an unhealthy material boundary). Finally, time boundaries refer to how a person uses their time; to have healthy time boundaries a person must set aside enough time for each facet of their life, such as work, relationships, and hobbies.
A great way to make sure you have healthy boundaries within a relationship is simply to have a discussion surrounding your own personal boundaries and how you would like them to be respected. It may help to make a checklist of the different types of boundaries, and check off whether your boundary in that category is being met or not. Explain to your partner why you feel as though your boundaries are being respected or not. Have a conversation with your partner about how you can best respect their boundaries as well.
You have heard it a million times, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more, but communication is key when it comes to relationships. I had a teacher who once told our class that we have two ears, and only one mouth, because we should listen two times more than we speak, and that always stuck with me. When it comes to communication the MOST important skill you can learn is to LISTEN! Read that sentence back to yourself just in case you weren’t paying attention the first time. Listening to your partner does not mean that you have to agree with everything they are saying. However, being able to sit back and hear your partner, and let your partner speak their whole truth, will make a huge difference in how you communicate with one another. Once your partner has said their fill, you can then respond to what they have said and say your piece.
One handy little trick to help you practice this is the techniques known as “Reflective Listening”. “Reflective listening” typically follows a set formula, in which you identify the emotion that your partner is experiencing in that moment, and why they are experiencing this emotion. For example, your partner may come home from work and say something along the lines of, “What the heck!? I asked you to do the dishes while I was away! And they’re not done!” The hardest part of this example is not becoming immediately defensive. Try to step away from the immediate emotional reaction you are experiencing and think about what your partner is saying. They are upset, possibly angry, because you did not do the dishes as they requested. Using your reflective listening skills, you would respond with something along the lines of, “I see you’re upset because I didn’t do the dishes.” It’s simple, but effective. You can also follow up this statement with a question of support, such as “What can I do right now to make everything better?”, or you can let your partner know you will do the dishes right away, and follow through on this action.
Once you have become comfortable using reflective listening skills, you can supplement them using “I Statements”. “I Statements” are a form of expression that allow you to bring up a concern without making your partner feel as though you are blaming them for something. The formula is as follows: “I feel ______ because _____.” In the example above, instead of the individual shouting and exclaiming (“What the heck!? I asked you to do the dishes while I was away! And they’re not done!”), they could have approached it with more sensitivity by saying something along the lines of, “I feel really frustrated right now because I had asked you to do the dishes, and they were not clean when I got home.”
Practicing these skills at first is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable, and that’s okay. The more you practice, the more second nature it will become and you’ll begin to add your own flair to these communication skills so it doesn’t seem as robotic in nature.
By Marion R. White, MHC-LP, Senior EAP Counselor