It’s not uncommon to write love letters to our partners. Well, it’s not uncommon at the beginning of a relationship anyway. Conflict letters are much rarer, but probably equally useful in the long run. Like love letters, they can be scary to write because they require a lot of vulnerability, which can really cause hurt if the other person reacts badly. Ultimately, though, vulnerability is necessary for relationships, so I think it is worth pushing through and trying out the conflict letter.
So what is a conflict letter? A conflict letter is one where you write to your partner describing an issue you are facing as a couple, giving your thoughts and feelings about the issue. You can also include possible solutions you come up with, although you’ll want to state them in a way that makes it clear that they are only possible solutions, not the final word. As we’ve discussed in past posts, ultimatums are rarely useful for relationships, except when you are dealing with a serious violation of your boundaries, like cheating, drug use, etc. Conflict letters are very useful because they give you a chance to articulate your thoughts calmly and clearly and give your partner a chance to think through the issue and their feelings about it before discussing it with you.
Tips for Conflict Letters
Write When You are Calm
Conflict letters often get a bad rap because people write them while they are angry. Writing a conflict letter while you are angry only leads to a permanent record of your harshest reactions to the situation. Any time your partner wants to, they can look back and see all the terrible, thoughtless, irrational things you said because you were angry. Obviously, that’s not a good thing. So wait until you are feeling calm and reasonable, and if you find yourself losing that cool while you write, take a break until you get back into a better emotional state.
Discuss Both Sides Fairly
It helps to acknowledge any attempts your partner has made to help with the situation, as well as affirm your belief that your partner ultimately wants what is best for both of you. (If you don’t have that belief, I would strongly recommend relationship counseling, because that is a serious issue.) Showing that you understand your partner’s point of view on the issue also helps. By approaching your issue in a way that reflects a positive, understanding view of your partner, you lessen the temptation for your partner to feel attacked and focus on defending themselves instead of addressing the issue.
Stay Focused on Solutions
Your goal is to resolve the issue, not to attack your partner or rehash the past. Bring up the past only to the degree that it is necessary to resolve the problem, and avoid using words that label or judge your partner as a person. If your partner has negative behaviors that need to be addressed in the letter, focus on specific events and stick to the facts and your feelings about the events instead of slipping into judgments about your partner’s character or motivations.
Let It Rest
If the issue is particularly contentious, or if you are unsure whether you explained yourself calmly and kindly enough, set aside the letter and come back to it in a few hours or even a day or two and read it again. Look for anything that has an angry or aggressive tone, or is likely to come across as an attack. For issues where you are unable to be calm while you write, it may help to have the letter read by a trusted friend who has the best interest of both you and your partner at heart so they can point out areas that may cause problems. Rewrite any problem sections. Remember, your goal is to move forward in a positive direction.
Deliver your letter at a time when your partner is not tired, angry, or stressed, and let him know that he can read it whenever is best for him, and you’ll be happy to discuss it with him whenever he is ready.
Wait for a Response
It can be tempting to push your partner for an immediate response, but one of the points of the letter is to give your partner time to process your perspective and his own reactions. Patience may be easier if you mentally set a time in the future to ask about the letter, like telling yourself that if your partner hasn’t brought it up again within three days you will bring it up yourself.
Writing out conflicts takes time, patience, and bravery, but it can deepen your discussions and help you get through issues more calmly instead of wasting time and creating stress by arguing about the issues. It’s a positive for the situation you write about, plus it builds vulnerability and communication between you and your partner. As with so many difficult things, this one is definitely worth the effort.