All couples fight. It’s not whether you argue, but how you go about it when you do argue that matters. Conflict in a relationship is normal because a marriage is the union of two individuals who bring different personalities and different needs into the relationship. Unfortunately, most of us have not learned how to fight well. We learned how to either avoid the conflict or escalate it, but not how to resolve it.
- push the pause button
- seek, first, to understand, and then to be understood
- look at conflict with curiosity
- look for the third option
- enjoy the making up part
- get defensive
- criticize your partner
- show contempt
- head for your cave
- miss the opportunity to learn from the problem
Arguments usually start with a difference. It could be a difference of opinion, a difference of objectives, or just something small that has been festering—like a pinch in your shoe that has become a sore blister. Whatever the cause, you and your partner find yourselves in a disagreement. Conflict has arrived and it often erupts with an emotional explosion.
If you can push “pause”, step back, and take a deep breath, you are less likely to say something without thinking—fueling the fire and regretting it all later. Sometimes you may need to take a timeout until you can get your emotions calmed down. That doesn’t mean ignoring the situation or pushing it under the rug. Quite the contrary, it means being able to talk about what ever created the conflict when you are both in a less agitated state of mind.
Both halves of that formula are necessary for effective communication in every aspect of our lives. Sadly, most of us focus on the second half.
Seeking first to understand is about listening and really getting the message straight. Often, we are so wrapped up in thinking about what we are going to say next that we don’t even realize that what the other person said is not what you thought he said, and pretty soon we’re not even arguing over the same point.
Given all of the listening we do, you’d think we’d be good at it. In fact most of us are not.
Research suggests that we remember 25–50 percent of what we hear. When emotions are high the number is a lot lower. When you can stop and make sure you really hear what the other person is saying you may find that the difference isn’t so big after all.
After pushing pause and calming down, ask your partner to clarify what he or she said or did. After you understand his/her point of view it’s your turn to explain your perspective.
We all have a stash of old and some not-so-old hurts and other feelings that exist right below the surface of our awareness. Without warning, something your partner says or does can trigger one of those feelings, and it flares up. The atmosphere when there are differences between you is the perfect place for the old stuff to show up even though it has nothing to do with whatever created the difference. So when conflict creates a big reaction for either of you, look at it with curiosity, and look for the real cause that might be under the surface. You may be surprised with what you learn.
When you are trying to find a solution to whatever initiated the conflict, both of you often think you have the answer, and it may not be the same answer. You sure don’t want to shift from arguing over the problem to arguing over the solution! The trick here is to realize that the best solution might be something neither one of you have thought of yet. Take a few minutes to brainstorm about possible other solutions. You may find the perfect answer is the “third option” you come up with together.
When you are able to navigate through the turbulent waters of a disagreement in a productive way, you usually end up feeling more connected to each other than you did before the whole thing started. After the conflict is over and you want to restore harmony, face each other, make eye contact, hold hands, and synchronize your breathing for a few moments. A long, warm hug works, too. Both will help you re-establish the connection between you both.
When your reaction to conflict is to get defensive, you stop listening to what your partner is saying. You focus on what you are going to say to prove you are right and you probably don’t hear a word the other person said. If your reaction to the words you didn’t even hear is a counter attack, neither one of you will feel like you are being heard, or that it is safe enough to have an open discussion about what is really going on. This creates a downward spiral of negative emotion that rarely solves your differences effectively.
Finding an effective solution to a difference between two people requires cooperation and pulling together for a positive outcome. When one or both of you sling nasty zingers at the other, you destroy the feeling that it is safe to collaborate. In fact, it drives the other person behind a wall for emotional protection making it hard to resolve the conflict in a positive way.
What do you do when someone makes you feel that what you said was not important, or not relevant, or just plain didn’t matter? Most of us shut down and feel like we don’t matter to the person who made us feel that way. That doesn’t make for a respectful environment in which to solve problems. It creates a barrier that makes it nearly impossible to work through what ever created the conflict.
This is different from taking a timeout to get your emotions under control. Stonewalling is when you refuse to discuss the situation at all. It can even mean that you ‘punish” your partner by not talking to him or her at all for a while. That’s pretty childish and sure doesn’t fix the problem.
All conflict situations have the potential for you to learn something about yourself or your partner. If you explore with curiosity whatever comes up when your partner triggers an old hurt, you both might learn something you were not aware of. It could even be an opportunity to heal. That kind of sharing builds intimacy and brings you closer together—if you let it.
When conflict arises, if you can step back from the emotion for a few minutes, really listen to what your partner is saying, explain your point of view without being defensive or critical, and treat each other with respect—your relationship can emerge even stronger than it was before the conflict appeared on the scene.