In any intimate relationship, conflict is unavoidable. Conflict can even be seen as a sign of health, as it demonstrates that both people are unique individuals.
I do not suggest avoiding conflict and letting resentments fester. This is much like shaking a big bottle of soda. If the pressure in the bottle is not released, it will eventually explode. However, the pressure can’t be released all at once, or there’ll be a mess. It needs to be opened gradually and skillfully.
In your relationship, if your partner is doing something that is annoying to you, you need to address it in a timely manner. Otherwise, the pressure in the bottle grows; and the greater the pressure, the deeper the resentment, the more difficult it will be to address it productively. It becomes too easy to “blow you top” — to give way to a sudden outburst of anger that will then hinder productive dialogue.
Thus, it is in our best interest to address annoyances before they reach a breaking point. One way to do this is with the SET method: Support, Empathy, Truth.
For example, say I am becoming annoyed that my wife is not doing her share of the chores. Before I get right into the Truth (“I would appreciate it if you clean more”), I might say, “I am willing to help you in any way that I can (Support), and I understand that you are very busy (Empathy), but I would appreciate it if you clean more (Truth).”
Starting the dialogue with Support and Empathy provides a better opportunity for your Truth to land, thus keeping each other in the social engagement window where we are able to problem-solve. We also do this by being cognizant of our tone of voice, as well as our gestures and posture. Basically, are you communicating that you are friendly or hostile?
When going straight to the Truth, your partner has a higher likelihood of becoming defensive. When one partner becomes defensive, so does the other, and before you know it you both are mad and outside the social-engagement window. You are in self-protection mode.
Unfortunately, this mode is easy to get into and at its core is anti-relational. Everything we do in this mindset will have to be apologized for later. Although it may feel warranted and may even be intoxicating, too much self-protection mode will erode the foundation of your relationship.
Using SET is one way to release resentments and pressures skillfully. There are of course others, but remember that whatever your approach, our brains are wired to detect threats and react defensively, and so your work is to convey to your partner that you friendly and supportive. In this way you can relieve pressures early and avoid sudden, messy explosions.