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A Couple's Guide to the Pre-Conflict Stage of Conflict

A couple on a couch working through the stages of conflict

Trying to move through the stages of conflict with your partner without addressing pre-conflict is like getting into a car with an empty tank. You're not going to get anywhere and you're likely going to end up in a frustration-fueled argument with your partner.



This pre-conflict stage can shape the other stages of conflict. This is the time when you gather your ammunition and justify the way you feel. It’s where stories are created and often facts are misconstrued, especially if those facts go against our justification for feeling the way we are feeling. 


But, hold on, before we dive into how you can create a productive pre-conflict stage, let's take a moment to acknowledge a crucial truth: most of us haven't been taught how to fairly navigate the stages of conflict with our partners, let alone how to begin fights with mindful conversation.


This blog is your guide to understanding the pre-conflict stage and equipping yourself with strategies that transcend just survival—they ensure your relationship thrives.


The pre-pre-conflict conversation you need to have with your partner

It's undeniable that you and your partner each have different experiences with conflict. Whether your experience comes from past relationships or watching your loved ones navigate conflict. It's important to take a moment when you and your partner are both relaxed, to understand how you each handle conflict.


Ask your partner...

  • How have you handled conflict in the past?

  • What do you need when conflict arises?

  • Who has influenced how you handle conflict?


Conflict Protocols to Protect Your Relationship

Conflict protocols act as mutual agreements, safeguarding your relationship when emotions run high. Think of them as guardrails, preventing your conversations from careening off course when emotions run high. They'll keep you and your partner safe when things feel like they're about to go off the rails and crash.


For example, you and your partner can implement a 30-minute timeout protocol. If after fighting for 30 minutes, you feel like you aren't making progress, you or your partner can call a time-out. Whoever initiates the timeout also needs to provide a timeframe (day and time) as to when you can revisit the conversation.


I also encourage couples to have an agreed-upon moment of reconnection before separating for a timeout or even at the end of a fight. This will help you reassure each other that love and connection is still the priority. This is a challenge that you can work through together.


Rules for Fighting

We've all had those moments when we're so angry with our partner that in the heat of the moment, we say something truly hurtful. Even if regret instantly floods your body, you can't take back what you said or the hurt that your partner is feeling.


When emotions run high, it's easy to unintentionally hurt your partner. That's why it's so important that you create rules of conflict.


Here are a few ideas:

  • Name-calling is off limits

  • Threats of any kind are forbidden

  • No speaking over each other

  • Use timers to keep conversations productive

  • Honor your partner if they say they need a break. Give your partner the responsibility of choosing another timeframe and re-initiating the conversation.


If a rule is broken, throw a flag on the play, give your partner a chance to collect themselves, apologize, and re-engage constructively.


These rules will help you feel supported and safe during conflict. Remember, the end goal of productive conflict is to heal your relationship, not cause it to rupture even further.


Pre-Conflict Approaches: Explosive vs. Thoughtful Conversations

Your partner forgets to stop at the store like you asked for the millionth time and you snap. Letting that emotional pressure valve loose without any filter feels good, I know it does!


But I have to tell you, I've NEVER seen explosive conversation work out in a lasting positive way. It may give you some temporary relief on your emotional pressure valve, but beyond that, it hardly ever resolves anything.



Now, I'm not suggesting that you should turn into a conflict-resolving robot. It's okay to have those big, explosive feelings.  I am suggesting you are CLEAR and fully understand what you are feeling, why you are feeling them, what you want to feel instead, how to get there, and the outcome you want before expressing those feelings. 


I always recommend that my clients answer these questions before they initiate conflict with their partner:

  1. What am I feeling? On a scale of 1-10 (10 being intense a.f.)

  2. What stimulus activated this feeling?

  3. What was I feeling before that happened?

  4. Could what was going on before it happened be contributing to the intensity of this feeling?

  5. What is the story I am telling myself about what happened?

  6. What are the facts?

  7. How do the facts compare to what I am telling myself?

  8. What do I want to be feeling instead?

  9. What do I need to feel the desired feeling?

  10. What is the change or outcome I want?


Once you are clear on these topics, you’ve down-regulated your nervous system, you are now ready to have the conversation in a productive way that supports both you and your partner in growing your connection.


Invite Your Partner to Face the Conflict Together

Before you initiate the conversation, consider the following questions:

  1. How do I feel about bringing this up?

  2. Why am I feeling this way?

  3. When would be a good time and place to ask to have a conversation?

  4. What is the outcome I want?

  5. What is the request I am making?


After you have some clarity on the conflict, it's time to INVITE your partner to the conversation. Invite being the keyword there! Productive conflict is a team sport and nothing will be resolved if your partner feels like they're being interrogated. It will immediately put them on the defensive.


Try this: “Hey, I’d like to have a conversation. Is now a good time?”


This is so considerate to where your partner’s headspace is and, trust me, you want them in the ideal headspace before discussing anything that may be challenging. 


If they say no… That’s ok!


Acknowledge that, respect it, and ask them when a good time would be.

“I understand and respect that now isn’t a good time. Do you know when a good time would be?”


Let them give you a good timeframe and ask them if they’d like you to initiate it or if they will be initiating the conversation.


If they are ready to have a conversation, make sure you're clear on what’s been going on, the request you have, the outcome you want, and how it would benefit both of you. Get your partner to buy in on the goal so you both have something you are working towards as allies, not enemies. 


Having a joint goal to work towards also helps keep the conversation focused in the instances it starts to veer off the path. 


Follow these steps and you'll be solving conflict with thoughtful conversation with your partner in no time!


If you want to know how to turn your conflict into connection, book a discovery call with me to see if my one-on-one services are right for you!

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