Katie Byrne: 'Avoid lovers' spats this festive season by learning how to resolve conflict'

It’s supposed to be the season of goodwill but for those in a long-term relationship, Christmas can also be the season of simmering tension and lovers’ spats.

Seasonal stress can turn minor foibles into major flashpoints and arguments can arise over the most inconsequential issues.

So, are you always arguing with your significant other during the festive season? Here are a few tried and tested techniques for defusing rows and reaching an agreement.

Recognise festive flashpoints

It can seem like Christmas rows erupt out of nowhere but the truth is that the same issues cause trouble every year.

Common festive flashpoints include overbearing relatives, expectations around gifts, budgets, endless chores and Christmas trees (or more specifically, too-big Christmas trees that barely fit into the boot, let alone through the front door).

Armed with this knowledge, we can approach these issues before they get too hot to handle. Sure, they might be uncomfortable conversations to have now, but why risk potentially devastating arguments later?

Air your grievances

There are more divorce filings in January than any other month, and the phenomenon’s link to the festive season can’t be ignored. Could it be that resentments are suppressed during the season of goodwill and the accumulated anger explodes the following month?

Whether that’s true or not, all relationships could do with a weekly tune-up, especially during the festive season.

Marriage stability expert Dr John M Gottman calls this a “state of the union meeting”. “That means that at least an hour a week is devoted to the relationship and the processing of negative emotions,” he writes in The Science of Trust. “Couples can count on this as a time to attune. Later, after the skill of attunement is mastered, they can process negative emotions more quickly and efficiently as they occur.”

Don’t play the blame game

It’s easy to play the blame game over the festive season. Christmas is chaotic by its very nature, and singling out scapegoats helps us make sense of the disorder. However, before you blame your husband for the broken fairylights or your wife for the overcooked turkey, it’s worth remembering that pointing the finger doesn’t resolve an issue.

Negotiation expert William Ury, author of Getting to Yes with Yourself, says he has seen the damage that the blame game causes in the countless conflicts.

“It escalates disputes needlessly and prevents us from resolving them. It poisons relationships and wastes valuable time and energy,” he writes. “Perhaps most insidiously, it undermines our power: when we blame others for what is wrong in the relationship – whether it is a marital dispute, an office spat, or a superpower clash – we are dwelling on their power and our victimhood. We are overlooking whatever part we may have played in the conflict and are ignoring our freedom to choose how to respond.”

And understand defensiveness

Gottman describes defensiveness as one of the ‘four horsemen’ of relationship conflict. The other three are criticism, contempt and stonewalling.

We all know defensiveness is a barrier to communication but it’s hard not to shield ourselves when we’re hit with a barrage of criticism.

So how do you get a partner to put the shield down? Well, you could start by putting the weapons away, says philosopher Alain de Botton’s Book of Life (a free online resource at theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife).

“There should be a recognition that people don’t change when they are told what’s wrong with them; they change when they feel sufficiently supported to undertake the change they (almost always) already know is due. It isn’t enough to be sometimes right in relationships, we need to be generous enough in our love in order that our partner can admit when they are in the wrong.”

Learn how to say you’re sorry

A sincere apology will defuse just about any argument but remember, even the most heartfelt apology won’t resolve the underlying issue. Likewise, adding the clause ‘but’ to an apology (“I’m sorry, but”) doesn’t an authentic apology make.

These are some of the key points that psychologist Harriet Lerner makes in her brilliant book, Why Won’t You Apologize? “The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them,” she writes. “An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction.”

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