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Ask Arya: What is the secret to resolving conflict quickly?


On this episode of “Ask Arya,” I am tackling one of the most common complaints in therapy – resolving conflict.

And since research has shown 69% of what we argue about is going to be technically unresolvable (Gottmann, 1995), we should probably get as comfy as possible in dealing with these relationship gremlins.

secret to resolving conflict

The challenge of any relationship is not how to develop, grow, and mature when you agree and see eye to eye about life. The challenge is what happens when you disagree. – Dr. Nancy S. Buck

As a relationship therapist whose favorite go-to is what we call choice theory, I see all arguments as starting over the difference between how two (or more) individuals attempt to get what they each desire.

You might be thinking, “Well, duh Tamara…” but hang on a minute. I promise you that most people are walking around saying to themselves (subconsciously of course), “If ____ and I wanted the same things, this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe we’re just not good lovers/ friends/ colleagues/ siblings, etc.”

I’m sorry, but this is simply NOT TRUE (so I guess I’m not really sorry am I??) 😉

Do birds of a feather REALLY flock together?

We actually never have to agree with anyone about anything, let alone like or want the same things to be in love or have long-lasting and fulfilling relationships.

It’s a ballsy statement to make, I know, but I am confident in my lady balls of steel and the psychological research. My own clinical and personal experiences align with it as well.

I have had friends and lovers from all walks of life, some of whom have taken complete opposite religious, political, sociological stances than me, and as long as I never felt criticized or attacked, our differences actually added to our fun. Shared values are important enough, but the bottom line is always, do we reach out in a positive manner when we find ourselves disagreeing?

What Doesn’t Work

By the time most couples go to therapy, they have been attempting to get what they want through all sorts of god-awful ways.

We’re actually all just a bunch of little kids on the inside trying to get our needs met and when our attempts are rejected, our behavior escalates into trying to make other people do what we want anyway (i.e., control them). We really don’t mean to come across like a b$% or a-hole, we just haven’t yet discovered a better way of doing it.

Because you’re an intelligent person, I know you’ll once again be saying, “Duh…” to the list below, but if you’re also an introspective person, you’ll ask yourself, Am, I guilty of any?”

Come on now…don’t lie.

And I bet you have your default(s) that you keep up your sleeve that you use most often. We all do.

(If misery loves company, and this is confession time, mine are 3, 4, and 7).

There are many creative and destructive ways that one partner can attempt to control the other partner but, ultimately, all of these deadly habits diminish and may ultimately destroy loving relationships. – Dr. Nancy S. Buck

Choice theory calls these the SEVEN DEADLY HABITS. (You can download a cheat sheet to reference later here.)

  • Criticizing
  • Blaming
  • Complaining
  • Nagging
  • Threatening
  • Punishing
  • Bribing (also known as rewarding ONLY to control)

All the top marriage experts agree that criticizing/ showing contempt for your partner is the absolute number one predictor of divorce/ end of a relationship.

Don’t do it, okay?

NEVER ever ever ever.

And this includes nonverbal indicators of criticism as well – eye rolling, angry sighs, etc. Anything that would make the person you’re arguing with get the impression that you are flat our judging him/ her.

Steps to Resolving Conflict

The following keys are from Dr. Nancy S. Buck’s work with parents who disagree.

  • Focus on what each of you want. Not your negative feelings towards one another right now.

Again, choice theory proposes that ALL BEHAVIOR IS PURPOSEFUL (even that which you’re not aware of) and the purpose of all behavior is the person’s best attempt to get what he or she wants that can meet a specific need (e.g., survival, love/ belonging, power, freedom, fun…think Maslow or even chakras).

So your husband’s refusal to get up off his ass to take the trash out could be his attempt to meet a need for relaxation or maybe a need to assert his own sense of control over what he does and doesn’t do.

And your wife’s nagging about the trash is likely her best attempt to meet a need for security (a clean house), or freedom (because she can relax once it’s clean) or power (because she now feels a clash of wills is taking place)…etc.

I hope this is starting to sink in. Neither of you is technically ever wrong; you just have different ways for getting your needs met.

Articulating and Understanding Wants

  • Each person should clearly and specifically explain what he/she wants (e.g, home birth vs. hospital birth).

Avoid using any of the deadly habits listed above towards your partner. All hurt, angry, or negative feelings are to be redirected back into explaining what you’re trying accomplish.

  • Listen and seek clear understanding, asking questions for clarification if necessary, but not asking questions to correct or disagree (e.g, why would a home birth be “unsafe”??)

Your goal is to understand your partner’s ideal outcome so well that you could explain it to someone else, even advocate for this position as if it were your own. (Imagine your partner were in a hospital bed incapacitated and you had to explain to the medical staff what he/ she would want).

  • Find the shared wants (e.g, a safe and healthy delivery for both mom and baby).

After each person has articulated what he/ she would like to have happen, together you identify any overlap in your ideal outcome. Any areas of disagreement or differences in perceptions are also identified (e.g., differing definitions of safe care for delivery).


  • Ask yourself, “If I do or say _____, will it bring us closer together or push us farther apart?”

If we’re honest, most of us are usually  in such a hurt to explain our own position, our own idea, and why our position is the CORRECT ONE, and why the other person is wrong, that we rarely fully appreciate and understand our partner’s perspective.

Like Dr. Phil says, “Would you rather be right or be happy?” Put another way, “Would you rather be right or be married?”

What Are You Doing? What Will You Do?

  • If needed, seek out more information (e.g., interview midwives, take a tour of hospital).

Each person should identify what he/ she will do to research and seek more information about the areas of disagreement and differences. Are these differences a matter of opinion or based on concrete evidence and facts?

Your goal is to better understand where your partner is coming from and either validate or discredit your own perception. Keep it real y’all!

This is usually where couples start to feel better about one another for several reasons. The first being, we’re each taking responsibility for this argument. Secondly, we’re being proactive about it rather than letting it come between us. Now we can problem solve as a team rather than just spit venom back and forth.

more on resolving conflict


  • Make a plan or plan to wait.

With the additional information, can a plan be made that satisfies both partners and the agreed upon ideal outcome we both want? If the answer is no, we agree to delay making a plan for an agreed upon time. Commit to your partner that while you are in limbo, neither of you will attempt to convince or change the other’s person’s mind or position (so hard I know!! but so necessary!!!).

Also, recommit to avoid using the deadly habits. Instead, ask yourself or your partner, “What do you want?” or tell your partner, “This is what I want.”

  • Continue to gather more information as needed and repeat steps until agreement is reached.

What If The Person You’re Arguing With Won’t Play Nice?

My quick answer? Who cares? You can’t control them anyway.

Before you throw something at your computer, let me explain.

All it takes is one of you to create huge rippling effects of positivity in the relationship, even if that means the outcome is just internal for you.

I once saw a psychologist during the throes of a particularly dreadful season of life with someone I now know is diagnosed with narcisstic personality disorder and was (and still is) extremely verbally and emotionally abusive. The doc reminded me that I ALWAYS have choices. I can step out of the vicious cycle of conflict even if I wasn’t going to leave the relationship.

Although more than a little skeptical, I gave it a shot and did my dead level best to avoid the seven deadly habits no matter what he did. I also used my best coping skills and self-care techniques to ensure my emotional force field was as strong as possible. While ultimately that relationship failed (for good reason!), I found that employing those steps kept our conversations a bajillion times more productive than anything we had done before.

(See my video on dealing with narcissists if you’re currently stuck with one.)

When all is said and done, it’s always a win for you if you can focus on what you want rather than want you don’t want, and redirect any negative feelings towards others by trying to better understand their perspective (and ultimately your own too!).

Now, who wants to try and teach this to our politicians? 😉

Additional Resources:

Handout on Seven Deadly Behaviors (and what to do instead)

Getting Together and Staying Together: Solving the Mystery of Marriage” by Dr. William & Carleen Glasser

Eight Lessons for a Happier Marriage” by Dr. William & Carleen Glasser

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships” by Dr. John Gottman & Joan DeClaire

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by Dr. John Gottman, & Nan Silver

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last” by Dr. John Gottman

Dr. Nancy S. Buck of Peaceful Parenting

Contemporary Issues in Couples Counseling: A Choice Theory and Reality Therapy Approach” Edited by Patricia A. Robey, Robert E. Wubbolding, & Jon Carlson (where I retrieved Dr. Buck’s suggestions)

relationship therapistTamara Powell, LMHC is the founder of Arya Therapy Services, a Pensacola based counseling and coaching practice that also offers services globally ONLINE.  She is a die hard existentialist and empowerment coach with specialties in gender, sexual, erotic, and relational diversity (GSERD). If you’re interested in working with her, you can book a session with her here.

  1. Teresa


    March 14, 2019 at 2:36 pm -

    I would love to communicate like that to my wife but she gets so defensive and reflects immediately when the pressure is on like right now we are fighting alot cause she wont work n I need the help real bad for us JUST to survive. I’m ready to divorece… so how do you deal w that?

    1. Arya_Therapy_Services


      March 15, 2019 at 4:18 pm -

      Honestly? While this may sound shitty, and I certainly don’t want it to, divorce or at least a conversation about it may not be the worst thing ever and here’s why:

      Authentic mature love is one that can say, “I love you but I don’t need you.” In fact, when I free up both of us by not NEEDING you, I can actually love you all the more and in ways you’ll receive better and will make both of us happier.

      We gift ourselves and our partners with complete autonomy; what I call “radical autonomy.” Practically, this often looks like us reminding each other of what we’d like ” (e.g., help with finances) and asking if they will partner with us to figure out a solution that works for us. If our partner can’t or won’t, then we discuss inevitable outcomes or natural consequences. For example, “Hey babe, you know that we’re barely making ends meet or even getting behind on our bills. And this is making me feel incredibly stressed and as if I’m going through it alone. I feel all this pressure on me and I could really use some help. Can we talk about how we might make some more money or how to get these bills paid?” And if she’s unwilling…. then it may become, “Well my love, as much as I want to stay married, I also know I want an egalitarian relationship that feels more like a partnership. So I may have to let you go.”

      Think about it… IF NOTHING CHANGES, will you be a happy spouse? Or will you grow resentful and maybe aloof or aggressive? Is that loving??

      I hope your spouse is open to being flexible and going back to the drawing board with you my dear!

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