Of all the skills it takes to nurture a successful and functional relationship, knowing how to navigate conflict well is among the most vital. It’s also something that even the best of us often fail spectacularly at.
That’s because most of the “healthy communication” rules we might learn (and even genuinely believe in) tend to fly out the window as soon as a conversation gets heated. It’s so much harder to access that level-headed, open-hearted, gracious side of ourselves when we’re really pissed off at our partner.
One of the most helpful tools for dealing with this problem is asking yourself one simple question as soon as a conflict flares up: How do I take care of my partner in this moment?
Chances are you’re rolling your eyes. It’s a difficult thing to even consider in the moment, let alone act on it. But try it. It works. And, with practice, your relationship will be much better for it.
Our Care Instinct Vs. Our Self-Protective Instinct
When we fight with our partners, most of us instinctively jump into a state of defending our own best interests. We don’t need any prompting to do this: Our natural self-protective instincts pull us toward arguing our own stance, defending our own innocence, and making a case for our own needs and preferences.
That’s not a bad thing, of course. We should be looking out for ourselves and our own needs in a relationship. But the problem arises when we focus so much on taking care of ourselves in a conflict that we forget to also take care of our partners in that moment.
When you’re in a relationship, you have two people’s best interests to tend to: yours and your partner’s. That comes naturally to us, most of the time — when you love someone, you truly do want the best for them. You like making them happy and want to take care of them when they’re hurt. You likely need no reminders to do this.
But in the heat of the conflict, that care instinct becomes eclipsed by your self-protective instinct. And that’s what you have to work to offset that instinct, and when you need to take a beat and ask yourself, How do I take care of my partner in this moment?
Here’s an example from my own life.
A few months ago, my partner and I got into a tense argument. We had been relaxing at home on a laid back Saturday, and I casually mentioned that we needed to repot the plants. Immediately, he snapped back saying he “really couldn’t get into this right now,” because he needed some alone time that day and didn’t want to get sucked into a whole project. The terse way he said it upset me, and so I told him so — admittedly with quite a bit of heat of my own.
He let out an annoyed groan, probably knowing a conflict was about to unfold. He launched into an explanation of how stressed out he’d been lately and how he felt like he was getting assigned a chore on his first free day in weeks. I launched into an explanation of how I never said we needed to do the plants today and how jarring it felt to have him shut me down in such a harsh way. I could feel the frustration swirling inside me, and in that moment, all I wanted to do was tell him off.
But that was my cue to pause.
In my usual state, I don’t ever knowingly do things that would hurt my partner, and that’s how I knew my instincts were out of balance.
So, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and waited until I could feel the heat inside me simmering down. When I opened my eyes again, I was still angry. But I could also see that the man that I love was growing increasingly upset and activated, and I wanted to make him feel better.
I walked over, pulled him into an embrace, and rubbed the back of his neck like I usually would when he’s needing support. This was hard for me to do (I was still angry!), but that familiar touch helped both of us reconnect with the usual loving dynamic that we have with each other. We both apologized for the way we’d spoken to each other, and from there, it became a lot easier for us to talk through the exchange, what parts of it had set each of us off, and what we each could do to better tend to the other’s needs going forward — his need for recharge time, and my need for boundaries to be drawn in a kinder and softer way.
How To Trigger Your Care Instinct During A Conflict
One of the keys to healthy conflict is learning how to take care of your partner even while you’re upset, and even when you disagree with them. When you’re able to do this, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to avoid escalation and find resolution.
Because this is of course so much easier said than done, here are a few ways to help yourself access your care instincts in the moments when they feel most distant.
1. Pause And Ask Yourself: How Do I Take Care of My Partner At This Moment?
When you’re feeling activated in a conflict, take a moment to pause and take a grounding breath. From there, if you can manage it, try actually asking yourself these questions:
- How can I take care of my partner in this moment?
- How would I support your partner in this moment if they were dealing with someone other than me?
- How would I support my partner if I actually agreed with what they were saying?
In any conflict in a relationship, remember that you’ve got two goals: making sure you get what you need and making sure your partner gets what they need. You don’t have to agree with them to care about their feelings and want to help them feel better.
Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep speaking up for your needs and boundaries, too. You can be angry and still show care for your partner. You being tender with them doesn’t negate your frustrations or make your points or feelings less valid. It just lowers the temperature, which usually makes it easier for you both to communicate clearly and understand each other.
2. Use Affectionate Touch
If your mind can’t get there on its own, sometimes just going through the physical motions of care with your body can make all the difference. Studies have found that small gestures of affection like hugging or holding hands during a conflict can make both people feel less reactive, more connected, and more able to communicate effectively.
“Touch may buffer against [the negative effects of a conflict] by promoting a number of positive interpersonal processes thought to communicate care and inclusion and be protective in the face of conflict,” researchers write in one such study. “Interpersonal touch is associated with increased attachment security, greater perceived partner support, enhanced intimacy, higher relationship satisfaction, and easier conflict resolution.”
In other words, when we use affectionate body language during a conversation, it becomes easier to remember how much we care about each other and to make sure our actions reflect that even in the face of conflict.
3. Discuss How You Want To Treat Each Other During Conflict.
Sometimes in peaceful moments, I’ll turn to my partner and literally say these words to him: “I want to treat you well all the time. I want to treat you well even when I’m angry.”
I hope that the more I say these words out loud, the more true — and instinctual — they’ll become for me.
I’m a human, and like anyone else, I can sometimes turn to caustic sarcasm and pettiness when I’m angry. I want to burn the world down. I want to prove why I’m right, how I’ve been wronged, and why I should get what I want.
But I love my partner dearly, and I always want to treat him well, even when I’m upset with him and even when I disagree with his perspective. It’s so hard to remember in the middle of an argument, so that’s why I try to say it even in calmer moments. That way, when the time does come that I’m feeling the heat welling up inside of me threatening to burst out at him, that anger itself turns into a reminder of the promise I’ve made. I hear the echo of my own words, and it helps me ground myself more firmly into that feeling of wanting to care for my partner.
The Bottom Line
Remind yourself to exhibit care during conflict. You likely won’t forget to defend yourself and your point of view in your next argument, so make a point to actively lift up this secondary goal to the top of your mind. Reconnect with the part of yourself that loves this person and wants to take care of them, and remember that it’s possible to take care of your partner even while you’re upset and even when you disagree with them.