Earlier this year, Grown Zone co-founders Zara D. Green and Alfred A. Edmond Jr. were interviewed by Essence.com Relationships Editor and Marriage Blogger Charli Penn about dealing with arguments and confrontation in relationships, and specifically marriages. Penn’s article from that interview, “Your Relationship Protection Plan,” was published in the October 2015 issue of Essence magazine. What follows here is our full interview with Penn.

ESSENCE: What are some tips for how couples can avoid arguments and confrontations in their marriage? Be specific and think in terms of actionable strategies to share.

Zara: The first and most important key to avoiding arguments and confrontation is tending to the condition of the relationship between you and your partner, which is the foundation of the marriage, at all times. Is it healthy—defined in the Grown Zone as established via a demonstrated mutual commitment to honor, esteem and respect? Is it always about tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, loyalty and trust (what we refer to as relationship sustainers in our book, Loving In The Grown Zone)? If the foundation (the relationship) is solid, the house (the marriage) can withstand disagreements. If the foundation is faulty, then the marriage is in danger, no matter how much (or little) you disagree.

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Alfred: In a healthy relationship, disagreement should never equal division. Never position or treat your partner as the problem; the problem (financial stress, changing sexual needs, misbehaving children, etc.) is the problem; you partner is your ally against it, not your enemy. In a healthy relationship, while you may not agree on the solution, you remain united against the problem. If you can’t, then again, you both need to deal with strengthening the integrity of your relationship. Never allow the problem to become more important than the person.

Zara: Do not confuse conflict avoidance with conflict resolution. You can’t destroy a healthy relationship by disagreeing. Conversely, you cannot fix an unhealthy one by avoiding conflict. Pretending to agree when you really don’t is not a substitute for discussing it until you can reach a resolution. Putting off the discussion to avoid an argument only allows hurt and resentment to build, allowing a minor disagreement to become a devastating (and avoidable) blow-up.

ESSENCE: What should a married couple do when they feel they’re arguing or disagreeing more than usual?

Alfred: Recognize that when disagreement always lead to arguments, the arguments are never about the disagreement. To prevent lasting damage to the relationship (the foundation of the marriage), they need to clear space, time and opportunity just for themselves to safely and openly discuss their feelings, not to agree with each other, but to truly hear and be heard by each other. The underlying issues will nearly always be about fear, insecurity, distrust, anxiety or hurt, not the apparent topics of disagreement. It is your and your partner’s job to make each other feel safe, so that you can face your problems together.

ESSENCE: Are there certain words/phrases/behaviors that trigger arguments and disagreements in a marriage?

Zara: Anything that is accusatory, even if unintentional, will introduce pain and defensiveness to even the most minor of disagreements. Avoid “you did” phrases; instead, use “I feel” or “I thought.” Also, be clear about your expectations; too many people punish their partners for not “just knowing” when they were never told.

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