The honeymoon phase of long-term relationships is short-lived. While most of us understand this truth, that does not 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-stakes conflict refers to the kinds of disagreements that are about differences of opinion and preferences, where the outcome is not critical to either person’s wellbeing. What to make for dinner. What you think of the Ozark mid-season finale. These are opportunities to recognize and honor how you and your partner are different people, and I always encourage couples to intentionally seek opportunities to engage with them.
The key is to engage in the difference of opinion without trying to change the other person’s mind or pretending that the disagreement does not exist. This means being honest and open about your thoughts on a topic when your perspective does not align with your partner’s. It also means genuinely listening to your partner and trying to understand their point of view.
Low-stakes conflict also presents an opportunity for another important component of a healthy relationship: Curiosity. Typically, the questions one asks during an argument help you understand how to convince your partner they’re wrong (and you’re right). Instead, the questions should come from a place of curiosity. Curious questions are aimed at increasing your understanding of your partner’s perspective. It’s not so much what you say as to 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
So how do you practice low-stakes conflict? A great place to start is by setting a goal to engage in it once a week. Again, look for situations in which the disagreement relates to preferences or opinions, not long-standing hot button issues. Daily activities like household chores can be a good place to start, as couples often disagree about how to do certain tasks or how often they’re done. (You’d be surprised how often dishwasher techniques come up in couples therapy.)
In general, here are some guidelines for healthy low-stakes conflict.
- Find a time when you can both focus on it. Prepare your partner for the topic so they will not 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.”
An easy ways to practice: 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 those who received counseling. There was a 50% reduction in divorce rates for both groups, compared with couples who did not 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 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 them as a sign of health and that you’ve moved onto a deeper part. 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.
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 Inc., HuffPost, Women’s Health, Paradeand more.