For a Better Bond, Learn How to Fight Right

Resolve romantic conflicts through shared problem solving.

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Remember what they used to say in Little League and the like? It's not whether you win or lose but ... you know the rest. When it comes to your romantic relationship, put on your imaginary T-ball helmet and follow the same mantra.

As two distinct people enmeshed in each other's lives and space, conflict is unavoidable. But guess what? That's OK. Better yet, when handled well, it can even bolster your union.

"Conflict is the price we pay for a deeper level of intimacy," says Les Parrott, a Seattle psychologist who, with his wife, Leslie Parrott, authored the recent book, "The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer." (That they have the same first name – his is officially "Leslie," too – and a last name that seems to underscore the point is not a marketing tactic.)

Their latest book outlines the principles of a successful fight with an acronym about what's at its "core." The mnemonic stands for: cooperation; taking ownership of one's part in the issue; respect; and empathy. The last point, empathy, requires putting aside your own agenda to consider your partner's point of view, explains Leslie Parrott, a marriage and family therapist. It's "so immensely powerful that about 90 percent of the time, that's all that's needed to resolve the conflict," she says.

But if focusing on all four of these principles feels like a lot to recall, just pick one, the couple says, calling them "contagious." The rest will follow as you set a new pattern and parameter for the conversation.

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Stepping away from a conflict can also help you gain some perspective on the root of the problem – which typically centers on perceived threat or neglect, says Les Parrott, citing Baylor University research on couples in conflict. With greater awareness, you can get a better sense of what's going on and when is a good time to talk about it.

You might also reconsider your position. Literally. Thinking about romantic conflicts in terms of your position and interests is "useless," says Susan Heitler, a Denver psychologist and author of "The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage." "I switch the terminology to solutions or plans of action and the underlying concerns behind those," she says.

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Heitler offers the following hypothetical situation: Say Annie wants to go out for ice cream, and Patrick wants to stay home to watch the game. If they battle over these two options, there's no room for compromise. But if they reconsider what they're really after – that she has a sweet tooth and wants to talk, and he wants to review the game with his colleagues at work the next day – they can find a valuable compromise. She can pick up ice cream while he watches the game, and they can enjoy it on their balcony afterward.

The idea is to solve problems together. And doing so requires a safe environment where each partner feels valued and heard, she says. That means framing concerns reflectively – how they affect you as opposed to attacking your partner ("I feel hurt when..." vs. "You always ..."). Once you shift your perspective to focus on underlying concerns, she says, "you can virtually always create a solution that's responsive to all the concerns of both people, and it will almost always be a better solution for everyone than the initial ideas of either participant."

While you're rethinking things, you might as well reconsider that T-ball mantra. Yes, it's about how you play the game. But remember, you're on the same team.

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