How to make conflict a constructive force in your relationship

Approach impending arguments with curiosity and a sense of calm.

When I was pregnant with my first child, a friend passed on some of the best parenting advice I’ve ever received – not that I realised it at the time. Start each day with a clean slate, she counselled. Forget the arguments of the night before and forgive your partner for the inadvertently hurtful things they might have said when the baby woke for the fourth time or wouldn’t feed or cried the house down despite all attempts to soothe her. Have an unspoken agreement that they forgive you too.

Sleeping easy

Back then, I didn’t know what it was like to spend the night hours pacing the floor with an unsettled bub. I was getting eight hours of restorative sleep – like I always had – and had no one to look after other than myself. I couldn’t imagine ever needing to put my friend’s advice into practise. Why would I be arguing with my partner at two o’clock in the morning when we were looking forward to everything about parenthood? I filed it under ‘thanks, but not relevant for me’ and the conversation flowed on.

 Sleeplessness and stress

And then my daughter was born. Becoming a parent is an infinitely joyful and rewarding experience, but nothing rocks the boat quite like bringing a tiny human into the universe. Everything changes – your relationship with the world, yourself, and inevitably, your co-parent.

Yes, the responsibilities of parenthood deepen the bond you have with your partner, but they also breed conflict, exacerbated by sleeplessness and stress. I’ve never argued so much with my husband as when our eldest daughter was born – but we survived it, and six years later, we’re expecting number three.

Change and conflict

If you’re finding discord creeping into your relationship, be assured that conflict in relationships is common, especially during periods of change. Dr Samantha Hardy, expert in conflict resolution and mediation, runs online training in these areas at CCI Academy. Samantha reassures that conflict in relationships isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What makes the difference is how you manage it. “Conflict can be an opportunity to communicate at a deep level, to learn more about each other, to strengthen and grow the relationship and to come up with creative ideas to manage and resolve differences,” she says.

Know your triggers

The stress and exhaustion of parenthood means behaviour that would normally pass unremarked, triggers an often-overwhelming emotional response. The specific challenges of new parenthood can also serve as fertile ground for quarrels. Think managing lack of sleep, breastfeeding, and the involvement of grandparents. “Conflict can also arise because the parents have different ideas about parenting,” Dr Hardy says.

One common trigger – in my household at least – is the divergence of roles and responsibilities that comes with the arrival of a baby. “One parent may be a stay-at-home parent who is the primary carer for the child, and the other may be working full time,” observes Dr Hardy.

Tips to calm the conflict

Dr Hardy says the primary mistake people make is that they stop listening to their partner and become self-absorbed. “They only think about things from their own perspective, then communication starts to break down, and people start to expect the worst, instead of the best, of each other,” she says.

When you’re a stressed-out parent, it’s an easy trap to fall into. Dr Hardy offers some advice about how to nip conflict in the bud. “Firstly, deal with it early – but not in the heat of the moment,” she says. “Take a bit of time to let your emotions cool down so you can communicate more evenly.” Don’t wait too long, she warns, or the problem will fester. Try to remember that the other person experiences the situation differently to you and approach the conversation with curiosity – not acrimony.

Ask yourself, ‘I wonder how they see this situation?’ suggests Dr Hardy. Next, try not to jump to preconceived conclusions. “Instead, give each other an opportunity to explain how you feel and why, before you start to talk about what should happen next,” she says. “Really try to listen and appreciate the other person’s perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.”

How to use the ‘one down’ method

Psychologist and author of The Good Enough Parent, Dr Andrew Wake places great importance on unity when it comes to parenting saying it models a healthy relationship and provides children with a sense of security.

Dr Wake tells Mindful Parenting that it’s common for conflict to follow the ‘one up’ model, where each party takes a defensive position. It’s a reactive approach that sees an argument escalate through a back and forth dialogue that becomes increasingly tense and angry. The outcome is rarely a resolution that satisfies both partners.

Instead, Dr Wake suggests trying the ‘one down’ model, a more reflective method that helps defuse conflict. Rather than launching an attack in the face of criticism from your partner, he suggests saying something like, ‘I’m sorry – help me understand what I did wrong’. “They can’t go up if you’ve gone down,” he says. Acknowledge their feelings and ask for more insight.

Nicola Heath

Nicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes for a range of magazines, newspapers and websites including The Guardian, ABC, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Daily and SBS.

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