Conflict can make or break a marriage. Well, not the conflict so much as how we manage the conflict can make or break a marriage. In my “exhaustive search for marital tools” I found an ancient manuscript entitled The Ten Commandments for Effective Conflict. Well…OK…I really didn’t do an exhaustive search. The commands are not so ancient either. And, I didn’t find them; I’m just making them up. But, these “commandments” are based on the knowledge of various marital experts. So, if you want conflict to draw you and your spouse into a closer relationship, follow these ten commandments for effective conflict.
1. Thou shalt regard conflict as sacred. Conflict is useful in a marriage. Avoiding conflict discounts the strength of your relationship, your spouse’s love, and your spouse’s desire to know you. It hinders intimacy by hiding the truth of yourself and your feelings. Conflict regarded as sacred is managed well and reveal your commitment to your spouse and your relationship. It increases intimacy and enhances loyalty. It allows you to confirm your values as a couple. Conflict is good. When managed well, conflict is sacred. (Shut Up & Put Up to Ruin Your Marriage shows the danger not considering conflict sacred but something to avoid.)
2. Thou shalt commit to working through conflict to reach a resolution. The best marriages involve people who willingly turn toward one another to work through difficult emotions and circumstances. They work to resolve disagreements. Unresolved conflict simmers and boils until it explodes causing emotional damage and relational pain. (Read Finish Your Family Business for more) Working to resolve conflict strengthens communication skills, reveals priorities, and solidifies a secure couple identity.
3. Thou shalt remember to cherish and honor thy spouse. It is easy to forget how much you love and cherish your spouse during conflict. So, make it a habit to recall the fun times you have shared with your spouse. Remember what you admire about your spouse. Call to mind all your spouse has done to support you, nurture your marriage, and build your home. Keep in mind that your spouse can have a valid perspective, even when they disagree with you. Your spouse is not the enemy. Your spouse is the one you love, the one you cherish, the one you honor above all others.
4. Thou shalt soothe thyself and thy spouse. Do not let your emotions run away with you during a conflict. Instead, soothe yourself. Breath. If you feel yourself escalating, intentionally take a breath and do something to remember and express your love for your spouse. Inject an “inside joke” into the conversation. Admit your fears. Reaffirm that you love your spouse even when you disagree. Verbally confirm your desire to understand what your spouse is saying. Make what John Gottmann calls “repair statements” to keep the emotion of the conflict in check. (Arguing with Your Spouse will help you learn other ways to soothe.)
5. Thou shalt remember thy spouse’s vulnerabilities and avoid “pushing buttons.” In other words, treat your spouse with respect, especially during a disagreement. You may even treat them with extra kindness during conflict, with kid-gloves so to speak, to avoid “pushing those buttons.” Avoid name-calling. Avoid sweeping accusations. Avoid blame. Be polite. Show respect.
6. Thou shalt listen twice as much as thou speak. You know the old saying, “You have two ears and one mouth so listen twice as much as you talk.” The wisdom of this saying is especially true during marital conflict. Listen intently. Listen to understand. Listen to connect.
7. Thou shalt avoid the kitchen sink. Stick to one topic, the topic of the conflict. Do not throw in the kitchen sink; stick to one topic at a time. If you find yourself bringing up other issues or past hurts, stop for a moment and refocus on the issue at hand. Commit to resolving one issue at a time. (Read Avoid 5 Practices to Have a Successful Family Conflict for more on Kitchen Sinking & 4 other patterns detrimental to healthy conflict.)
8. Thou shalt keep short accounts. Once a conflict has ended, do not harbor it in your mind.
9. Thou shalt take responsibility for thine own contribution to the conflict and thine own actions during the conflict. Think about your contribution to the conflict. Think about the emotions aroused during the conflict. What made the topic or the conflict so important to you? Did you feel frightened of the distance from your spouse created by the conflict? Were you reminded of incidents from your childhood that increased your anxiety or fear or anger? How might you communicate these emotions to your spouse in a calm way? Also, what did you do to escalate the conflict? For what do you need to apologize? How will you make amends?
10. Thou shalt reaffirm thy love and commitment. When the conflict has ended, whether you have reached an agreement or not, reaffirm your love and commitment to your spouse. Give your spouse a hug and a kiss. Offer them a sincere compliment. Tell them you love them and are committed to a lifetime with them.