Does it ever feel challenging to get through to your partner when you’re in conflict?

Do they become endlessly defensive when you raise an issue?

Or do they bring up unrelated problems they have with you or the relationship?

Are you the defensive one?

Many of you have written in to ask about navigating issues with defensive or conflict-avoidant partners. This episode is my answer.

We’ll cover why clean conflict and fair fighting are critical to successful relationships, what this looks like in practice, and tips for having healthier, constructive conflict.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Why Is Clean Conflict Important?

Nothing productive happens when we lack the skills to have clean conflict.

When we don’t fight fair issues don’t get resolved, and resentment often builds.

Clean conflict is also how we build lasting and robust relationships.

If you’re conflict-avoidant, you might think you’re escaping the issue entirely, but being ‘polite’ and easygoing can result in missing out on actual intimacy in the relationship. Plus, staying silent about bothersome things doesn’t mean they magically disappear!

Don’t get me wrong- I don’t love conflict. But in my 25 years as a psychotherapist and of being with my husband, I can tell you avoiding conflict isn’t the answer because it’s impossible.

What is possible is healthy, constructive conflict where we resolve issues before they fester into resentment and destroy our relationships.

Through clean conflict, we grow closer and understand each other more deeply.

Being Mindful About Conflict

Many of us have heard we should “choose our battles wisely,” but what does this actually mean?

In my estimation, it means being mindful of your mood.

For example, when you are in a bad mood, do you ever look for a fight to discharge your energy?

Or do you become hypercritical of your partner over things that don’t normally bother you?

Sometimes, targeting ‘minor’ issues also occurs when we feel frustrated with our partner about something that’s too threatening to talk about.

You may not be aware you do any of this, which is why mindfulness helps.

These behaviors are also less effective because while you may be upset, your partner has no idea what the actual problem is.

Before I raise concerns with my husband, Vic, I think through how I feel, what is important to me, and where I am coming from. Am I displacing my aggression on him? Am I frustrated about something else?

Taking a Moment

Additionally, be mindful about responding rather than reacting during conflict.

If you get overwhelmed during conflict, it is okay to say, “I need to think about this. Let’s circle back in X hours.”

Buy time, even if your partner might not like it. But follow through on coming back together to talk about it.

If you’re the person who doesn’t like their partner buying time, I see you. At the beginning of our relationship, I wanted to talk things out with Vic immediately, and it took me a while to understand he needed time to process his feelings.

This didn’t happen overnight, but Vic following through on coming back and tolerating the conversation helped build trust.

Relating With Love, Generosity + Respect

Responding mindfully and with mutual respect goes a long way toward cleaner conflict.

Remember, even if you are in conflict with your person, they’re still your person. You chose them and they chose you.

Dr. Becky (whom I love) talks about having “the most generous interpretation” as opposed to “the least generous interpretation.” While this theory pertains to parenting, I think it applies here, too.

It is easy to make the least generous assumption about why your partner did something bothersome or didn’t do what you wanted them to do.

But when we make the most generous assumption, we are less likely to jump to negative conclusions.

Part of being in a relationship is holding your person in high esteem, rather than making the least generous assumption. Work to make the most generous assumption instead.

Fair Fighting

Fair fighting is about not hitting below the belt.

This means “no blaming, no interpreting what they really meant, no diagnosing, no psychoanalyzing, no preaching, no moralizing, no ordering, no threatening, no labeling, no interrogating, no ridiculing, no shaming, and no lecturing.”

This list is from one of my favorites, Dr. Harriet Lerner, and I want you to keep it in mind, which is why it’s inside the guide, which you can get here.

Can you and your partner both agree to avoid below-the-belt tactics to protect the relationship?

Tips For Dealing With a Defensive or Conflict-Avoidant Person

How can we approach the anti-conflict people in our life?

Start with a gentle, kind, neutral introduction when everything is calm. You do not want to attack them the second they walk through the door.

Create emotional safety by sharing your vulnerable feelings about something. Maybe it is sadness, disappointment, or anxiety. (I would not lead with anger and frustration because it will likely turn the conflict-avoidant person off.)

By the way, no judgment toward conflict-avoidant folks. Many of them are conflict-avoidant for good reason and may shut down at the first signs of conflict due to past trauma.

While someone shutting down can be infuriating, remember, they may lack control over their nervous system. Try tapping into empathy to have a kind and gentle conversation.

I have more tips and scripts for approaching defensive people in the guide, but know it will likely take time for your dynamic with this person to change. If trying to initiate this conversation differently doesn’t go well the first time, it’s okay. Changing relationship dynamics is a long game.

Proactive Strategy: State of the Union

Every other Sunday morning for about half an hour, Vic and I have a State of the Union where we talk about how we are doing as a couple.

We begin with gratitude for the other person, and then we move into what we need to work on and address any grievances the other has.

Don’t be afraid to bring up small grievances, either. This decreases the chance they grow into bigger issues.

The point of the State of the Union is to normalize talking about difficult things. It sets the expectation of talking about what is good, what we can work on, and what could be better, and allows you to talk without distractions or excuses.

It also clears the deck of any lingering resentment or issues you haven’t had a chance to talk about.

For more tips on instituting a State of the Union in your relationship, download the guide right here.

I will close out with this reminder: words have wings.

Once the words are out of your mouth, regardless of whether you “meant them” or not, they are in the world.

I am sure you can remember hurtful things people said to you decades ago. Words can do real damage to our relationships. Working toward having clean conflict and fair fighting rules is worth the effort. Your relationship is worth the effort. ❤️

I hope this episode added value to your life. Let me know which tips were the most helpful for you in the comments or on Instagram (@terricole). I’d love to know if you have State of the Unions or how you’ve successfully approached a defensive or conflict-avoidant partner.

I hope you have the most amazing week and as always, take care of you.

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  1. Hello, I love your wisdom and appreciate your direct and actionable suggestions. Thank you! I must admit though, that I have a particular challenge with implementing this with my spouse. We both suspect he may be on the spectrum but it is difficult to detect this as he functions 'normally' while at work, etc. However, at home, it's a very different story. It would be so helpful to learn how to approach these concepts with him while keeping in mind that his brain is wired in such a way that a conversation about our challenges or implementing any change is extremely difficult. If you have any resources which you may suggest for people like me, I would be so thankful!

    1. Hi J, how loving of you to consider how best to communicate with your spouse. 💕 Could you ask him how you can best support him during these conversations? Or ask him what he would need to have these kinds of conversations? Or is it that he isn’t sure himself? Is there a pattern you can identify where you tend to run into misunderstandings? With a little more info I might be able to point you in the right direction. ❤️

  2. Oh wow Terri, this article was so helpful for me – thank you! When I saw the title hit my inbox I actually felt a sigh of relief; it's just so comforting to know there are people who understand the challenges you face! The most impactful moment of this article for me was, "If trying to initiate this conversation differently doesn’t go well the first time, it’s okay. Changing relationship dynamics is a long game." Phew! This is really helpful. I have developed such compassion for myself at lacking communication skills because I'm painfully aware my entire family lacks them haha! So it's really encouraging to hear it's okay when things don't go well while we clumsily attempt to build these skills >_< Thank you again, so much Terri, I am truly so grateful for you. Have a blessed day! XXXXX

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