Or – “What are you so mad about?”

Before I became a national traveling speaker, I managed a private practice as a psychologist. Often, couples would come in for some counseling (which is always a good idea for a relationship tune-up) about a particular issue between them.

“How can I help you?” I may start out saying to them. Many times they were hesitant or reluctant to open up right away (which is absolutely common at first); “Well….we don’t know….we don’t really fight that much anyway…” To which I would think to myself, ‘then why are you here?’ Eventually they would open up and the ‘why are you here’ question would be answered for me.

People tend to be uncomfortable talking about conflict in a relationship. Conflict can be scary for individuals and couples. And so, we often think that it is easier to avoid talking about conflict then it is to bring it out and confront conflict head on. And when I say confront it head on – I don’t mean argue, fight, or yell. I mean resolve as in conflict resolution.

And when I say conflict resolution, I also don’t necessarily mean agreement or one person getting their way, while the other person gives in (and then sometimes simmers in resentment) – I mean, aiming for understanding.

In my seminar on conflict, I ask the audience if they have ever heard a couple talk about a rule to success which they have found in their relationship, and what is it? The audience invariably fills in the blank –“our rule is that we never go to bed mad.”

Then I tell the audience, “Ladies and Gentlemen, take it from the shrink – go to bed mad! Just go to bed! But, set an appointment for tomorrow to talk about the issue.” My thinking on the matter is this: if the fight with your partner started at dinner time, and it is now 3:00 in the morning – you are exhausted, your batteries are drained, and you’ll most likely say the wrong thing with the wrong tone of voice – which will just make it worse in the long run.

Go to bed. But don’t bury it. Instead, set an appointment for the next day to do conflict resolution rather than fighting in the middle of the night. Sleep can be magical; for you may wake up the next day and realize what you were arguing about is really not that big of a deal, and you can let it go.

Or, now that you are rested and calm, over a cup of coffee; you can initiate conflict resolution – which basically comes down to understanding where your partner is coming from. Putting yourself in their shoes as it were: “Tell me what you were thinking and feeling about this issue”. Listen calmly while trying to not interrupt and then explain what you were thinking and feeling as well.

This is the hard part of course; and yet it is the Great Predictor of Longevity. This is actually true; studies have demonstrated that a factor of success in relationships is HOW a couple talks about conflict even more than how many conflicts they have…think about that!

Which leads me to introduce:


  1. Conflict is inevitable in all relationships.
  2. People tent to avoid conflict.
  3. It’s not how many problems you have that matters; it’s really about how you talk about them that does.

In conclusion, Aiming for Understanding is just Part One of the drama of dealing with discord. Stay tuned for Part Two in my next newsletter, when I introduce you to Person A & Person B and show you who’s got a problem and how to solve it.

All the best,

Psychologist and Humorist Bruce Christopher