I work with many couples who want to improve on conflict resolution and problem-solving, but feel stuck in their interactions. I usually hear something like this:
“I like to address the problem right in the moment and talk it through, while my partner likes to take time to think about it and resolve it later.”
For many couples, this “incompatibility” seems like an insurmountable hurdle when it comes to productive conversation. Often, couples end up having more volatile disagreements about how to disagree or avoid any kind of conflict.
In reality, both styles are perfectly legitimate. Some people feel the best way to problem-solve is to use the moment talk it through with their partner. They may worry that if an issue is “dropped”, it will never be revisited or the same exact arguments will be rehashed all over again, just at a later date. When their partner retreats from the discussion, it may feel like procrastination, or even abandonment. Others require time to gather their thoughts. They may worry that not having time to think things through clearly will lead to a decision that is ill-suited for one or both parties. When their partner pushes them to have a discussion, they may feel pressured and more emotionally reactive.
Having different styles of conflict does not mean that you and your partner can never come to a resolution. These differences can be navigated. Here are some tips for making sure problem-solving doesn’t cause more problems.
HALT and consider timing
Before you discuss something that requires problem-solving, consider this: are you or your partner hungry, anxious, lonely, or tired? Using this acronym (HALT), you can better assess if you or your partner are in the right mindset to have this discussion.
It is easy to get heated quickly when problem-solving about emotionally charged topics. Go into the conversation with the intention to be calm and level, rather than bracing yourselves for a fight. You’ll find that if both of you are starting softer, it will feel more like a discussion than a fight and will take a lot more time and energy to reach a level of volatility.
Meet in the middle
Knowing that you both have different styles, find a way to compromise! If you partner needs time to process alone, let them know ahead of time that you want to have the discussion so they can gather their thoughts beforehand. If your problem-solving sessions are more spontaneous, allow your partner the time to process by themselves. However, set a firm time for the conversation to be revisited. If your partner is someone who wants to verbally process in the moment, set any alone processing to less than an hour. If that feels difficult for your partner, they may want to try writing down their thoughts in the moment for easier recall and more efficient problem-solving.
Remind yourselves that while you have different ways of getting there, you both want the problem to be solved! You are on the same team. Just because you have different playing techniques, does not mean you aren’t trying for the same goal. See the value in each other’s styles and tackle that problem together.