There’s nothing like a healthy argument to clear the air and get back to peaceful state. Yet, many of us avoid argument at any cost. A life without conflicts would be easier, but that’s the stuff of fairytales, especially when you’re a caregiver for a family member. There are so many hot-button issues that are likely to cause riffs and tiffs, from what to do with mom’s car when she can no longer drive to legal issues around power of attorney and inequitable division of duties between caregiving siblings.
In relationships with your siblings, your partner and your grandkids, there will always be differences in opinions – and not all will be resolved amicably as you navigate the challenges of caregiving. By adapting your fighting style and making it more productive, you can ensure the outcome of disagreements don’t derail caregiving duties and important family ties.
While men may have been raised to be comfortable doing battle, many women still shy away from conflict. “It amazes me that in this day and age, women have difficulties expressing their feelings in a direct way,” says Toronto-based psychologist Lori Dennis. “There is still truth to the idea that women are not as assertive. They are trapped in old roles as pleasers and caregivers who dare not ask for what they really want.”
We cling to old patterns that are hard to break since they were learned on the playground. Most little girls will resort to stomping off or dissolving into tears, rather than standing up for themselves. As a result, women have become adept at taking the long way around to convey emotions or simply saying what’s on their minds.
Tactic: “You attempt to resolve an uncomfortable situation, by placating the other person with what they want to hear and making nicey nice,” says Dennis. The peacemaker is unsettled by confrontation so discussions about issues are likely to be superficial. You will be agreeable, even if that’s not how you truly feel, just to make a situation go away quickly.
Pitfalls: “You don’t get heard and you aren’t speaking the truth,” says Dennis. “It’s a short term, Band-Aid solution that isn’t satisfying or meaningful. It resolves nothing because creating peace is the primary goal.”
A better way: Make resolution your top priority. Recognize the underlying issues in the conflict and be assertive – talk about them. Accept that conflict is normal and with it comes opportunities. “It can hold up a mirror so that we can see our flaws and differences, and be a catalyst for growth.”
When it can work: If you’re expecting friends over for dinner soon, it’s not the time to get into a discussion with your spouse about a lack of help in the kitchen. Deal with it after your guests leave, to avoid making them feel uncomfortable, and then discuss a mutually workable solution.
The escape artist
Tactic: When disagreements pop up, you retreat and yank the plug on an argument. You use the silent treatment to punish the other person, and may add sulking or pouting to drive home your point – or even stomp off. It’s what we often do in an attempt to protection ourselves, looking for a safe place in the relationship, away from the heat of conflict.
Pitfalls: With nothing resolved, the fight continues and even escalates. Silence leads to ruminating thoughts about the argument and sets off a pursue-and-withdraw emotional cycle where one person chases and the other runs. Everyone ends up exhausted and angry – and the original problem may be totally overshadowed.
A better way: Hang tough and fight when it matters and deal with conflict right away. Don’t let it fester. If things do get heated, it’s okay to back away, but be clear about what you’re doing. You could say, “I need some time to think. I’ll be back in an hour and we can continue talking then.”
When it can work: You and your adult child have opposing views about what type of vacation you’ll be taking together. Frustration rises as you try to make your opinion heard and considered. Your voice gets a bit louder and you can almost feel your blood pressure jump. Grab a coffee alone, and cool off before you say something that you’ll regret and damage a relationship that is important to you.
Tactic: An argument turns into a contest of wills between two strong-headed people, a battle of egos about who’s wrong and who’s right. You use your best verbal skills to score points in hopes that you’ll emerge as the winner. It can turn fiery with yelling and tears.
Pitfalls: The loser will feel defeated, and the result of the showdown is a damaged relationship. And if you’re focused on scoring points and besting the other person, you may be losing sight of the real issues. A lack of sensitivity and respect for someone else’s position creates resentment and hurt.
A better way: Put aside that battling spirit. It’s a lose-lose scenario that leaves everyone unsatisfied. Opt for a compromise, if possible, that is acceptable to both parties and you’ll be a true winner.
When it can work: If you’re a lawyer or politician who needs to outwit, outplay, and crush the other guy with superior strategic reasoning, this is an effective way to handle conflict. Otherwise, forget it.
Tactic: Turning on your best offence, you amp up quickly, becoming angry and aggressive. It becomes the blame game with a litany of criticisms launched at the other party – something like: “You’re so lazy! I have to do everything around here.” Sometimes, it’s an act of frustration. Your partner may not saying a thing while you talk. You try turning up the heat in hopes of getting a response. Or he could not be giving you validation about how you feel, so you lash out in anger.
Pitfalls: Ironically, the more you raise your voice, the more you will be tuned out. If you’re on the attack, the receiver has two choices – duck and take cover, or come out with guns blazing. Neither option moves the conflict closer to resolution.
A better way: “Anger is a valid, acceptable emotion,” says Dennis. “But it should not be used to hurt someone.” Channel that anger to a passionate exchange where you say clearly how you feel (using “I” statements”) and stating what you want the outcome to be. You’ll get more meaningful feedback when the other person is not being blamed or criticized.
When it can work: If your goal is end to your relationship, this definitely burn a bridge between people.
“Anger is a valid, acceptable emotion, But it should not be used to hurt someone.”
In romantic partnerships especially, the emotional stakes for conflict resolution are high. Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson, the Ottawa-based author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, has studied the science of love and found the role that “attachment theory” plays in relationships. The idea is that the quality of the connection to loved ones (like parents) in childhood is key in the way you connect with others (such as a husband or boyfriend) as an adult.
When you have a strong, secure attachment, it is empowering and your partner’s emotional support is a source of strength. To be truly close means feeling confident enough in being able to confront one another because you know that he isn’t going to leave or ridicule you when your needs or feelings are expressed. When that bond is shaky, an alarm goes off – one that is hardwired into our brains – and you may feel anxious, be aggressive, or distant.
Both Dennis and Johnson agree that not fighting is a red flag. If you claim to have a picture-perfect, argument-free relationship, this could be a cause for concern. “Not fighting is a way of putting distance between you and your partner,” explains Johnson. Others may seem this as enviable, but what they don’t know is that avoiding fighting comes out of fear – fear of losing that all-important special someone.
Today, given scattered families, technology’s replacement of in-person interaction, and the loss of a community bond, the stakes are higher than ever for couples. “People need their love relationships more than ever. We’re so dependent on our them.” Rather than test the relationship by having to resolve a conflict, partners stay silent and may not grow through solving problems together.
Whether it’s a friend, work colleague, adult child, or partner, being brave enough to fight the good fight shows you care and feel confident in your relationship. Daring to speak up and be heard matter and your reward is being more emotionally healthy for it.
Expert tips on fighting fair
-play the blame game. You’re in the midst of one if you begin sentences with “you always….”
-fling insults or resort to name calling. Even though you might be angry, they can cause lingering hurt.
-scream or yell. It’s okay to raise your voice a bit, but keep the volume turned down if you want to be heard.
-squirrel away issues for another day. Deal with them when they come up as soon as it’s appropriate.
-take a scattered, shotgun approach with grievances. Focus on the resolution of one disagreement at a time.
-cool down before you attempt to resolve an issue if you’re furious or upset.
-start your sentences with “ I feel” to take ownership of your emotions.
-be direct and clear about what you need and an acceptable outcome.
-understand that conflicts are normal and they need not be feared.
-break old patterns, like pouting and sulking, that result in your feeling dissatisfied at the end of a disagreement.
-be content with not “winning” an argument. Think compromise instead.