Michael Griffith MFT
Downtown San Francisco therapy office
treating individuals, couples, and families

Michael Griffith MFT

870 Market St. #1045

San Francisco, CA 94102

           415 546 6548      griffithmft@gmail.com


These are some guidelines for resolving conflict in your relationship.  Each of these suggestions will facilitate your exchange, but  they also require basic goodwill  towards your partner to be effective.  Obviously, at a given moment in a fight, you may not be overflowing with goodwill and benevolence towards your partner and their statements.  But hang in there and over time you will develop trust that even the current impasse can be worked out.


Your end-point is to create a relationship that is a resource when contending with the outside world, that is a safe-haven 24/7 to become a life of pleasure, trust, and familiarity.


However, it your are having contentious fights, especially in the "power struggle" phase of couple development, or if you have become stuck in a power struggle, read on!!


To start with a seemingly simple concept;  it helps greatly if you make "I" statements, not "you" statements.  When using  "I" statements,  your sentence should start with "I feel", or something like, "right now, this is what is going on for me".  You emphases should be on your own process, and not get stuck on blaming your partner with "you" statements.  In other words, don't start your sentences with " If only you'd" or "You are so inconsiderate" or "you are such a jerk".  These are sure to make your partner defensive or entice them to counterattack with blaming statements, which lead to a circular fight that resolves nothing.  Instead, say what you are feeling, which can be in reference to your partner's behavior, so that you might say, "When you were late last night, I felt really mad, or hurt,".  Don't say, "Because you were late last night, you made me mad and throw the vase through the window".  Blame elicits defense and often counterattack, so if you want to be heard, start off with statements of your feeling. Start a discussion gently, rather than coming out with both guns blazing. 


It helps to separate assertion from blame.  You don?t need to blame your partner to make your point.  Accusing your partner is the best way to create a defensive response where he/she will shut down and not hear what you are trying to communicate.  Tell him/her what YOU feel inside, and feel free to do with  emphasis and strength.  Tell them your inner experience!!  You can be strong without being critical, blaming, or yelling.


The name of the game is to be responsible for your own feelings and experience, and not to fault the other for causing your distress.  Which is not to say that you shouldn't express your distress , but to do so in a clear,  non-threatening, non blaming way, and tell them why you are pissed-off.  It is your choice to be mad, hurt, withdrawn, etc and not your partner's fault.  Productive conflict can clarify when you have felt intruded upon, or disregarded, or your trust has been violated---good information to share!  Do so in an energetic, expressive style that engages your partner and that suits your individuality, but don't threaten or intimidate and don't try to frighten your partner.  If she/he is scared because you threaten them--- by leaving the relationship or physically challenging them, or are too loud for them to bear---then your own style needs to be curtailed. 


When you are angry, you should sound and feel angry.  As a couple you will need to work out your mutually acceptable tolerances for volume, physical closeness in a fight, gestures, etc.  This range will vary from couple to couple, and often there are wrinkles to iron out in terms of balancing your need to express  versus the other's ability to stay present and listen.   After all, that is what you want, is for them to listen to you and take your in.  Frightening your partner, even if done unintentionally, will block exchange and shift the focus to one of safety and self-protection.   In a good fight, you need to present your case strongly, but not be overwhelming to your partner.


Good communication is hurt by exaggerations and distortions which are often said in an attempt to boaster your case. Try  to be as accurate as possible without over-doing it.  Exaggerations of historical reality can lead to shifting the topic to arguing about literal truths about what really happened, rather than what you felt.  Don't generalize (distort) with "you always" or "this is just another example of your selfishness" . When you start and argument with generalization and  exaggerations, you will often get lost in arguing the truth of the generalization.


Character assassination is not conductive to either good will or the free trusting exchange of feelings.  Labeling your partner as "insensitive", or "thoughtless", or "mean", or a "block-head" will not help.  You might feel some relief in your initial discharge of a blaming/labeling of your partner, but that is from the discharge of energy and pent up feelings, not the blaming words themselves. This is an important point.  Don't confuse the relief at discharge with the use of inappropriate, un-useful words.   You can get the same sense of relief from voicing a grudge if you use  words that are more accessible to your partner.  Breaking this  habit of labeling will make you a more effective contender in making your points.   


For example, it is far different to say "You are such a flirt. You talked with her for half and hour and ignored me!!  You are so insensitive and mean!"  as opposed to, " You know Jim, I was really hurt when you talked to that new girl and ignored me.  I felt like an idiot and was really humiliated.  I was so mad I wanted to kick you.  What was that about?"


To contain the level of fight, it is up to both of you to keep the topic on an appropriate plane. It does not help to threaten to leave the relationship as a way of exaggerating your distress.  When you do this, it shifts the conversation to more threatening arena, and the consequences of the current fight become shifted form the immediate experience to whether you survive as a couple.  Guaranteed to escalate!   Also, don't try to coerce or manipulate your partner with threats of leaving, or of hitting, or anything else for that matter.


Threats don't work with kids, or even countries,  so what would they work with adults?


When you are in a heated discussion, and you feel a "charge" building up, where you feel increasingly activated, rather than discharge that by fighting,  simply observe your inner state while you listen to your partner.  This kind of activation can be a chance to learn that you can tolerate it and don't have to immediate escape it by blowing up at your partner. Developing the capacity to contain the energetic tension is key to tolerating conflict and to successfully work it through to a mutual end that works.  Notice where you feel the activation in your body; you can breathe into the area while you listen; you can walk it off while listening, or simply stretch your neck or back.  In tolerating this build-up, you increase your chance of getting at least  enough of what you want to make the final solution bearable. 


If you find your build-up of energy is too much to contain, call a time-out ,announce it to your partner and agree to reconnect in 5 minutes, an hour, or even later on when you think you will be up to it.  .  Don't just walk out unannounced.  You may not  get your partner's full consent to do this, and hopefully this is an "escape valve" you have previously agreed-upon.   If need be, go to the next room next door, take a walk or a drive, go to the beach, and let yourself yell it off.  Curse, kick the floor, call a friend to get support.


In that vein, learn to be responsible for your own stress management.  this includes enough sleep, food, exercise, therapy, socializing with friends, creative outlets, and other forms of self-nurturing: listen to music, take a bath or hot tub, get a massage.   Exercise is great to letting off stream but don't do exercise instead of continuing the discussion, but do it so you feel better.  It helps if your create your own path for growing while you are in a power struggle with your mate.  Use therapy, books, keep a journal, introspection, and whatever you need to maximize this process as a change to learn about your own hot buttons, to diffuse them, your own internal blocks and assumptions.  Take care of yourself, and don't demand that your partner do this for you.


This process is about your changing, along with your partner.  It is not simply so they will change.  You both hopefully can see this as a dual process of growth.


Listen to your partner.  Listen.  Give verbal feedback and summaries to let him/her know you "got it".  This is especially helpful when things are getting hot and heavy in the moment.  It slows things down and helps each person at least know they have been understood.  This form of containment may feel a bit odd at first but it works --a good thing to agree upon beforehand, so when you need it, it will be there for you both.   While this is simple in concept, this feedback process, a kind of active listening (but different), requires good will, the ability to contain a charge, and a mutuality of understanding.  This process is not easy and needs practice to mature, so you can develop confidence in it.


Don't be overly discouraged by occasional lapses.  They are predictable and normal.


Another tip is to stay specific and work on one point at a time.  Don't bring up more than one issue at a time.  While it is common for certain issues to lead into other concerns, try to stay with one at a time so some resolution can be accomplished.  Floating from one problem to another feels overwhelming , doesn't  solve individual complaints, and leads to feeling hopeless.  When you have had an intense discussion and are too tired to go on, agree to stop, and at a later time, continue with other problems that came up. 


As a  corollary to this tendency for this one problem to mushroom into more global concerns, learn not to "gunny sack" or bring up a bag of past resentments you've been storing up.  Going back into past resentments will distract from the current problem.   It is best to talk through individual  issues as they arise, and often this will take several go-rounds to achieve progress.  Sometimes all we can do is raise the issue, put it on the table, and know it will take a while for you two to figure it out together.


Change is incremental.


Another "don't" (there are a number of these, and in a second we will get to what to do)  is not to bring third parties' opinions into your own twosome conflict.  No, "well Bill also thinks you are too uptight about..".  Ganging up by gossip is unfair because your partner can't rebut the alleged reaction of a third party and it won't bolster your case.  It will make it harder to argue your cause by bring up another person's opinion about your mate or the issue at-hand.    


Don't  psychoanalyze your partner's motives, intent, and don't take a "one-up" stance. Leave the interpretations to your therapist.  That is what you pay them for, because on that level, your partner will accept it from the therapist whereas they won't hear it form you.  It doesn't help to argue about "why you're really upset is.." or "you are treating me like your mother".  


Name the behavior, your feeling response, and what you want.  "I saw, I felt,I want".  Practice this together, often, until the style becomes a habit.  Remember, your feelings are your feelings, and you are entitled to them, and don't have to defend their veracity.  You are entitled to have feelings, no matter how unexpected or unreasonable they may seem to the other person.


Keep specific to the item in conflict.  Don't generalize it with criticism like "you're always doing this", or "you always bring this up after your kids have left".  If you do this, you will  become  bogged down in a very large and unmanageable criticism, and will not go where you want it to...resolution and understanding. 


  Contempt takes many forms , and  is palpably painful and easily read. Contempt, either in words or tone of voice will kill a relationship over time.  Both of you should learn to recognize it and address it overtly.  Often it is such a loaded issue, and tempting to ignore it but it needs to be dealt with. 


 Another thing is it is really important to be specific about  your actual feeling.  Arguments  often start  with  "I feel freaked-out when you stay out late".  "Freaked out" is expressing upset but is very unclear.  How upset?  Scared, angry, depressed, abandoned, lonely, jealous, or ???  The more specific emotional vocabulary you use will result in more understanding from your mate.  It will invite a response.  Using "freaked-out" makes it hard to respond to what really might be your abandonment issue, and can be a instance for your partner to feel blamed and frustrated. 


When you are "freaked-out, upset, pissed-off" you will eventually need go get down to the core of it.   This will entail the use clear emotional words:  hurt, rejected, lonely, sad, anxious, worried, happy, joyous, embarrassed, ashamed, jealous, frightened, and so forth. 


Allow your partner the right to have their feelings.  She/he can be different than you are, function quite unlike you in a give situation, so don't expect him/her to behave or think like you would.  They actually may be different than you are.  While it is true that your partner might actually be a alien in disguise, you often will learn from their warped perspective.  So don't make them wrong for being different than you are.  Quite often we partner-up with individuals because they have personality characteristics quite different from our own, and usually this is one of the initial points of attraction.  "I love it when she is so powerful!!" yes that is a nice place to start a relationship from , but when she takes you to task and doesn't back down, what do you do with her power?


Feelings are feelings.  They are not points to be defended, and don't have to be legitimized to your own standards.  Sometimes your partner might be "irrational"  ..so what?  That is part of being human, and also what frequently comes up in early relationship evolution, because when we get close to a new person and get vulnerable, we are very vulnerable and can be "reactive" or "sensitive".  So you might as well learn to enjoy their sensitivity because it means they care about you and that is what you want, no?  We should be glad that our new partner cares so much about what we wear, or how we sound, or how we keep house (or not).  So try not to take it as criticism but as an expression of involvement. 


Learn to enjoy the pleasure of eating crow, over and over.  Apologizing goes a long way and it is invaluable to admit you were insensitive, or forgetful, or off or whatever the item is.  Notice how you feel when your partner apologizes and imagine that they can appreciate your own apology.  It helps build trust, as to what is real, that you are not on a ego trip, that humility and honesty can go both ways.  You might even raise this to an art form with flowers, surprise visits, phone calls, gifts with meaning, etc.


Espress appreciation and thanks for little things, for doing the dishes, for clearing up a cluttered room, for cooking a meal.  Overt "thank-you's" build respect and express valuable acknowledgment.  This is especially true in thanking a mate for an apology and how you genuinely appreciate it.  It truly builds trust in the other person when you do this, and tells the person who is apologizing that you don?t always expect to "win" and that you appreciate their self-appraisal skills in this case.


Mutual trust in supporting each other's growth and struggle with recovering from personal wounds is invaluable.  Knowing your partner is a helpmate in dealing with your own blind spots and personal vulnerabilities is lovely.  Knowing that they love you in spite of, or because of your struggle with problems is to feel full acceptance.  A partner's understanding and support as you struggle with a habitual foible is invaluable. 




This has been quite a lists of don'ts  so what can be said about shoulds?





Learn to understand your partner and help them when they become dysregulated by some interaction (with you often), but also when they have been "undone" by some outside person.  Keep a boundary around your relationship.

 Express your distresses with anger and trust you can work though it.  Listen.  Acknowledge your own screw-ups . 


 Express gratitude and thank each other.  Love one another, even when you are upset with each other.  

Understand that your struggles are healthy and a sign of real emotional closeness.  Enjoy the turnarounds into pleasure, humor, and love.

Know your partner is your "go-to" person 24/7 when you have a problem in the world and is your source of support and council. You can each help each other in contenting with life's surprises and dealing with outside situation.  In this respect, practice patience in listening.

Protect and enjoy your sexual connection, and create a time and commitment for it.

Express fondness by tone of voice and touch.  A nudge on the rump? 

Use humor freely, frequently!

Trust that this process has an unconscious wisdom and truly is the best and only path you have to be close. 

Develop win-win solutions.

Notice your loving responses become more frequent, on-going, and full hearted.

See how much you enjoy each other if you aren't so focused on self-protection.