The honeymoon phase of long-term relationships is short-lived. While most of us understand this truth, that doesn’t stop us from struggling against reality. Gone are the days of being delighted by the discovery of similarities. Instead, you begin to see all the ways in which your partner is different from you.
It’s a jarring shift, which is why many couples can experience the end of the phase as one of disillusionment and uncertainty. The sudden awareness of differences, along with the disagreements and conflicts that arise feel threatening. Often, this is an anxiety-provoking experience, as fears of criticism, judgment, or rejection replace feelings of togetherness.
In my work as a couple’s therapist, most of the clients I see struggle to understand how to deal with differences in the relationship, without even being aware of the anxiety that’s at the heart of their struggle. These couples tend to respond to differences in one of two ways. They either avoid conflicts by refusing to recognize differences (sweeping everything under the rug until it inevitably becomes the elephant that’s impossible to ignore) or they eliminate differences by convincing their partner to see the error of their ways. Both responses are based on a fear of differences and discomfort with seeing each person as an individual within the relationship.
A better way forward? Look for opportunities to fight. Seriously.
Conflict in relationships is inevitable. It’s also necessary. When it’s handled well, conflict is a positive force in maintaining a strong and healthy intimate relationship. Rather than trying to erase differences, you should embrace them as the fertile soil for a vibrant relationship that’s capable of supporting your growth as individuals and deepening your connection. That’s where low-stakes conflict comes in handy.
So, What Is Low-Stakes Conflict?
Low states conflict refers to the kinds of disagreements that are about differences of opinion and preferences, where the outcome isn’t critical to either person’s wellbeing. What to make for dinner. What you thought of the Ozark mid-season finale. These are opportunities to recognize and honor the ways in which you and your partner are separate individuals, and I always encourage couples to intentionally look for opportunities to engage with them.
The key with low stakes conflict is to engage in it without trying to change the other person’s mind or pretending that the disagreement doesn’t exist. This means being honest and open about your thoughts on a topic when your perspective doesn't align with your partner's. It also means genuinely listening to your partner and trying to understand their point of view.
Low-stakes also present an opportunity for another important piece of relationships: Curiosity.
When helping couples engage in better conflict, I start by teaching them how to ask each other questions with genuine curiosity. Typically, the questions one asks in the midst of an argument are geared toward helping you understand how to convince your partner they're wrong (and you're right). Curious questions are aimed at increasing your understanding of your partner's perspective. It's not so much what you say as how you say it. “Why did you do that?” can be a critical question or it can be a curious question. It all depends on the spirit with which you ask it.
Practicing Low-Stakes Conflict
- Find a time when you can both focus on it. Prepare your partner for the topic so they won’t be blindsided. “Hey, I’d like to talk later about how we handle chores”
- Keep the conflict blame-free. For instance, “It’s not a huge deal, but I’ve realized it’s not working for me to load the dishwasher the way you want me to.”
- Share your perspective. “On my end, it’s important to feel like I can make decisions about how I go about completing chores. I’ve noticed I’ve been feeling micromanaged and a little resentful.”
- Invite your partner to share theirs. “Can you help me understand what’s important to you about how I load the dishwasher?”
- If it’s a disagreement that needs a resolution, add your desire to work toward a solution that honors your differences. “I’d like to figure out a solution that works for both of us.”
One of the easiest ways to practice low-stakes conflict is to watch movies and then talk honestly about your thoughts. A fascinating study published in 2013 compared outcomes for couples in marriage counseling with couples who watched a series of relationship-themed movies and had post-movie discussions together. It found that the movie couples fared just as well as couples who received marriage counseling, with a 50% reduction in divorce rates for both groups, compared with couples who didn’t participate in either counseling or movie discussions.
It’s a striking finding, given that marriage counseling requires more investment and more emotional distress than watching, and talking about, movies. And I now recommend talking about movies whenever I'm working with a couple who is having difficulty accepting, and appreciating, their individual differences. It’s a great arena.
Comfort with conflict in a relationship takes practice. It starts with reframing the way you understand individual differences in relationships. Instead of approaching differences as a threat to the health of your relationship, recognize these differences as a sign of health and that you’ve moved on from the honeymoon phase. As I like to tell the couples I work with, once you get past happily ever after, you have the chance to discover how you can be happier than ever.
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