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?
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.”
Angela Amias is a couple’s therapist and the co-founder of Alchemy of Love, which offers online programs and coaching to help people create satisfying long-term relationships. She’s been featured as a relationship expert in , , , and more.