Every marriage relationship develops patterns of interaction. Some patterns help marriages grow. Some can kill marriage. An analysis of 74 separate studies that included over 14,000 people discovered one pattern that can kill our marriages! This negative relationship pattern lowers relationship satisfaction, decreases intimacy, and contributes to poorer communication. It is often lovingly referred to as the demand-withdraw pattern. In this pattern one partner makes criticisms, complaints, and requests while the other withdraws and gives the silent treatment (The Most Toxic Relationship Pattern). Knowing this pattern can destroy your marriage is a start. Learning what you can do to replace it is even better. That’s the real solution. Here are a couple of ideas.
- Instead of criticizing, use what Gottman calls a “gentle startup.” Rather than verbally attacking your partner’s personality, stick to describing the situation causing the stress. Find a way to explain the positive need inherent in your complaint rather than “harping” on what your partner’s doing wrong. Coming up with a positive need opens the door to discovering a solution and building intimacy.
- Rather than creating an environment of abuse in which you insult your partner or show contempt for your partner, create an environment of appreciation. Maintain your awareness of your partner’s positive qualities. Speak words of affirmation and adoration to your partner every day.
- Rather than making excessive demands and requests on your partner, practice serving one another. Build a culture of service, a culture in which both partners serve one another.
- It’s easy to begin taking a “tit-for-tat” position when you feel like your partner blames you for something. Our first instinct is often to return blame for blame, attack for attack. Rather than do so, take responsibility for your own mistakes. Own up to your shortcomings. Admit your wrongdoings and seek forgiveness for your mistakes.
- Rather than shutting down, practice calming yourself and your partner. Don’t push buttons. Breath. Take a break. Distract yourself. Then, after you have soothed yourself, return to #2 and tell your partner what you love about them.
The demand-withdraw pattern could destroy your marriage. But you can end it. You can replace it with something better by beginning to practice the 5 actions above. Why not start today!
Many things can start a couple to arguing. Some issues of argument seem significant like money, sex, who does what chore, or how often to go out. Others seem insignificant in the long run like how to hang the toilet paper, what color car to buy, or what side of the bed to sleep on. There are a multitude of “argument starters,” issues that lead to arguments. However, if you really want to, you can narrow the “argument starters” down to a few key issues.
- Insecure emotional connection. When we do not feel emotionally connected to our spouse, we seek ways to reconnect. Unfortunately, we may seek less effective methods of reconnecting. In our fear of losing our attachment to our spouse, we may even go to extremes to reconnect. Sometimes we turn to arguing and fighting to regain a sense of connection. It results in a negative connection but a connection nonetheless. It is in response to fear of emotionally drifting away from our spouse that we sometimes get “snarky,” snap back, and make harsh comments. Like a toddler crying out and reaching for her mother, we will strive to reconnect by acting out of our fear of rejection.
- Conditional acceptance. Some marriage experts have called acceptance the “mother of all issues.” We long to feel totally and unconditionally accepted. When we feel our acceptance is based on performance or behavior, we can easily feel abandoned and rejected when our performance does not meet the standard of our partner’s expectation.
- Feeling disregarded. Sometimes we feel disregarded, unheard. We believe our spouse “never” listens to us. We feel unimportant in their eyes because they have disregarded our desires or ignored our requests. In anger, we demand to be heard and attended to.
I’m sure there are other issues that lead to arguments, but these three issues underlie many arguments. Arguments about money often come down to feelings of insecurity, emotional distance, and feeling unheard. Our heated disagreements over physical intimacy reflect feeling emotionally disconnected. Argument about dishes in the sink stem from feeling “my wishes always get disregarded.” The list goes on…feeling emotionally disconnected, conditionally accepted, and disregarded fuels many of our arguments. That’s good news because knowing what fuels the arguments and fights gives us insight into how to avoid the arguments and fights. Knowing the “argument starters” shines a light on the “argument enders.”
- Connect emotionally. Spend time together. Talk about more than the business of running a household. Talk about your interests, dreams, fears, and joys. Share opinions about current events. Pray together. Learn together. Walk hand in hand. Snuggle up and cuddle to watch TV, the sunset, or the birds in the yard. Seek ways to “touch your spouse” emotionally each day. Take time to connect. (You might even try practicing a Marital Sabbath each week.)
- Accept your spouse unconditionally. Acceptance satisfies a deep-seated emotional need in each of us. It promotes a sense of security, confidence, and courage. Put away comparisons, back-handed compliments, and guilt-inducing statements. Practice accepting your spouse and expressing that acceptance in your words and actions. Treat them with the dignity inherent in them as a person. Love them for their differences as those unique traits make your relationship stronger and more beautiful (Read Honoring Variety for more).
- Attend to your spouse. Listen to your spouse and respond to their attempts to interact and connect. Let their desires influence you. Keep your spouse in the forefront of your mind and communicate how important they are to you as often as you can. (Here is a simple formula to help you keep your spouse in the forefront of your mind.)
Don’t let this short list of ideas limit you. I’m sure you can find more ways to connect emotionally, practice acceptance, and attend to your spouse. The important aspect is to practice connecting, accepting, and attending on a daily basis. As you do, arguments will decrease in intensity and frequency. You will feel more intimacy and joy in your marriage.
I’ve seen it happen several times. I’ve heard friends talk about it even more. I’ve even experienced it myself. You probably have too. You order you’re food at a restaurant and when it finally comes to the table it is cold or maybe even the wrong order. So, you call on the wait staff to correct the problem. Now one of two things can happen.
Option One: The wait staff becomes defensive. They try to make you understand what happened and explain it was not their fault. They sound like they’re arguing with you. They may even blame you for the mishap. You just get more and more frustrated. Even if they fix your food you leave the restaurant angry, determined to never do business with them again. That’s one option.
Option Two: The wait staff listens. They calmly hear your concern. They may even ask a few questions to clarify. They seem to show genuine concern, apologize, and do their best to remedy the problem. This time you leave feeling good even if the food wasn’t the best you’ve had. At least they listened. They understood my concern. They empathized with my frustration. They are good people and I enjoy doing business with them.
These same two options exist in our marriages. When disagreements and conflicts arise we can follow option one or option two. The option we choose will impact our relationship satisfaction. In fact, a group of researchers explored this very idea in a series of seven studies published in 2016 (See 3 Steps to Calm Your Romantic Partner When You Are Arguing for more). The results of all seven studies demonstrated that couples had greater relationship satisfaction when both partners felt understood. Even more, participants reported greater relationship satisfaction in spite of disagreement when they felt understood by their partner. They felt more like a team. They believed their partner was invested in the relationship and that the problem could be resolved more easily. They even felt closer after the disagreement than before the disagreement! Sounds like a great result. So, how can you assure your spouse feels understood?
- Listen. Listen to their words to understand what they say. Look at them so they know you are listening. Listen to their body language to see if there might be more to what they are saying. Listen to their emotions to discover the deeper meaning behind what they’re saying. Listen wholeheartedly. Listen intently. Listen.
- Ask questions to better understand and clarify what they are saying. No matter how intently you listen you might misunderstand something. So, ask some questions. Repeat what you believe they are saying and ask if that is correct. If not, listen some more.
- Look for areas in which you can change and compromise based on your partner’s concerns. In other words, let their words influence you. Let your partner’s needs and wishes influence your actions. Compromise.
- And, did I say…LISTEN.
Responding to disagreements in this manner will determine whether you and your partner walk away from the disagreement satisfied or frustrated, feeling good or feeling bad, happy or upset, determined to enjoy more time together or questioning your relationship. I know which one I want, do you?
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? I mean, asking one question to stop a spat with my spouse? How could it be true? But, according to the research, it is true. Amazingly, you don’t even ask this question of your spouse. You ask it of yourself! And, according to research completed in 2016, it changed the whole conflict (Read more in http://www.spring.org.uk/2017/11/question-improve-relationship.php?omhide=true.) The person who asked this question became more forgiving. They interpreted their relationship in a more positive light. They gained greater insight into the cause of the conflict. All of this reduced the heat of the argument and led to a quicker, more amicable resolution!
Now, want to know the question? Here it is. Ask yourself, “How will I feel in one year about this conflict with my spouse?” That’s it. One simple future oriented question. “How will I feel in one year about this conflict with my spouse?” Repeat that question to yourself. Embed it in the synapses of your brain. Then, the next time you find yourself in a spat with your spouse, dredge it up from the recesses of your mind and ask, “How will I feel in one year about this conflict with my spouse?” It might just change everything!
Every married couple will experience conflict. Spouses disagree. Fortunately, the University of Waterloo is discovering ways to promote the successful resolution of that conflict. Here are two research based exercises they suggest for resolving marital conflict in a positive way:
- The Fly on the Wall. When you find yourself in conflict with your spouse, take a breath, step back, and look at it from the perspective of a third party (the proverbial “fly on the wall”). Stepping out of your personal perspective and intentionally looking at the situation from a third person perspective leads to less biased decisions and judgments. It leads to “wiser reasoning” as well. Specifically, it increases a person’s awareness of the limits of their own knowledge and of the changing context of the conflict. It contributes to the person’s willingness to acknowledge their partner’s point of view; and, perhaps most important, it makes a person more willing to seek a way of integrating their two points of view into a common solution. That “fly on the wall” is a smart dude…and can help reduce the conflict in your marriage. (Read a review of the study here.)
- Go Back to the Future. Another way to reduce conflict is to focus on the future. Imagine how you will feel one year from now. By doing so, you shift away from the current emotions of conflict and disagreement and allow yourself to focus more on the foundational emotions of your relationship. Couples that intentionally take time to focus on the future of their relationship during conflict become more positive about their relationship. They open up more to forgiving and being forgiven. They even reinterpret the conflict in a more positive light. So take a trip to the future and come back to a more positive relationship. (Check out this study here.)
Maybe, if you really want to resolve conflict quickly, you can focus on the future of a fly on the wall…never mind, that doesn’t end well. Just take a third person perspective of your conflict (as though you were a fly on the wall) and focus on the future of your relationship. With those two exercises you can enjoy a long, loving relationship with your spouse!
The University of CA (Berkeley) and Northwestern University recently published the results of a study following 156 heterosexual couples for 20 years. The authors examined how the couple’s way of managing “conflict conversations” impacted their health over time. They found a link between “stonewalling” (which includes barely speaking, little to no eye contact, emotionally shutting down) and back pain. They also found angry outbursts were associated with cardiovascular problems. Let me repeat those results so you don’t miss it.
- The emotional withdrawal of “shut up and put up” is a pain in the back. It may contribute to backaches, stiff necks, stiff joints, and muscle tension over time.
- On the other hand, flying off the handle with angry outbursts can break your heart. It may contribute to chest pain, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems over time.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my marriage to be “a pain in the back” or a “broken heart!” So, what can we do when we disagree or argue to prevent this?
- Remember your love for your spouse. Recall attributes and character traits you adore about your spouse. Keep your gratitude for your spouse’s positive contributions to your life in the forefront of your mind.(Read The Killer Wall in Your Marriage for more info)
- Listen intently for the sole purpose of understanding your spouse. Your differences of opinion open the door for you to know our spouse more intimately. Your spouse becomes an open book voicing her opinion, thoughts, and desires. Listen carefully. You will learn a lot and grow more intimate as you listen with the sole intent of understanding your spouse. (Read Go Ahead & Argue With Honor for more)
- Postpone your own agenda until your spouse feels emotionally validated and understood. Don’t even try to explain your side of the situation until you can restate what your spouse has said and your spouse responds with “Yes. You got it. Now you know how I feel!” (For more read Make Your Argument the Best Part of Your Day)
- Breathe to stay calm. Men, especially, have a tendency to move into a fight or flight mode during disagreements. When you reach this point, you no longer think rationally. You simply defend, fight to win, or run. Breathing can help you stay calm, rational, able to listen, and compromise. Breathe.
- Soothe your spouse, as well. Be aware of your spouse’s sensitivities and don’t push her buttons. Respond in love by respecting your spouse’s vulnerabilities. If you notice you or your spouse “losing your cool,” take a break, express some affection, or tell a joke—anything to help restore a sense of calm to both you and your spouse.
- Allow your spouse to influence you. Sometimes your spouse may make a good point (I know, it’s surprising). Sometimes your spouse may actually be right! Sometimes they may simply have a different opinion than you…and neither of you are wrong. Enjoy the difference. Remain humble enough to admit his/her wisdom. Allow his/her opinion to influence your responses and actions. Doing so expresses love.
Follow these 6 tips and your marriage will not become a pain in the back, nor will it break your heart.
Let’s face it. No matter how much you love your spouse, he will drive you crazy. At other times, she will do things that frustrate you. Somehow these moments need to be addressed in order to maintain a healthy marriage. If not addressed, these frustrations will erode your marriage. People in healthy marriages address these frustrations and concerns with complaints, not criticism. It’s true. They complain. They do not criticize. There’s a big difference. A complaint addresses a specific unmet need. It identifies a specific action or statement that irritates you and leaves the need to feel loved and connected unmet. A criticism, on the other hand, attacks character. It makes a global statement about the other person’s shortcomings, demeaning or belittling them. When a discussion begins with a criticism, it is sure to end poorly. The one criticized is tempted to rise up in defense, which perpetuates a cycle of decline and disconnection unless repairs are made. So, if you want a healthy, happy marriage, state your concerns as complaints, not criticisms. Here is a format for offering a complaint rather than a criticism.
- Realize that your frustration or irritation speaks more about you than anyone else. Other people may see the same action and not be bothered. They may simply let it “roll off their backs.” The fact that it bothers you reveals that you have a specific need. You want to get help with this specific need, not attack your spouse.
- With a calm voice, state your observation of a specific action or behavior that creates a need. “When I came home from work the last two days, dishes were piled up in the sink.”
- State the impact this behavior has on you, but do so without placing blame. The impact will identify your emotions in response to this behavior and a need created by this behavior. “I get really frustrated when I’m tired and see all those dishes. I think about how much I have to do and I get angry.”
- Offer a positive way your spouse could help meet your need. “If we could all put our dishes in the dishwasher when we use them it would really help me feel better.”
- Ask for your spouse’s input about other ways you could work together to meet the need. “Would you be willing to do that or do you have another idea for how we could work together to keep the sink clear?”
Remember, you are approaching this situation to get a positive need met, not to attack your spouse. When you voice a concern with a complaint rather than a criticism, you are limiting the chance of a defensive response and increasing the chance of getting your need met. You also open the door to work together. You increase intimacy and trust in your marriage. So, when problems arise in your marriage, don’t criticize. Complain instead.
Yes, you can have a successful family conflict! Successful conflict increases mutual understanding and intimacy. It draws families closer together. Conflict also reveals ways to help your family grow stronger. Conflict can do this and more if we avoid five practices. If you let these five practices sneak into your family conflict, misunderstandings increase. Anger grows. Intimacy diminishes. Joy dwindles. What five practices interfere with a successful conflict? Let me share them here.
- Mind-reading interferes with successful conflict. Mind reading occurs when one person assumes to know what the other person thinks or intends by their actions or words. A person who mind reads assumes to know the motives of the other person. Mind reading implies that “I know your thoughts, intents, and motives better than you know them yourself.” When a person practices mind reading, he passes up the opportunity to truly understand what the other person means, intends, and believes. He increases the chances of misunderstanding the other person’s motives. Instead of mind reading, ask questions. Seek to understand what the other person means and intends by their statement.
- Labeling interferes with successful conflict. Labeling involves name-calling. It can be as subtle as “You’re irrational” or as direct as “You’re an idiot!” Labeling, name-calling, will obviously interferes with a successful conflict. Name-calling hurts. It arouses the other person’s defensiveness. It passes judgment on the other person. It implies the conflict cannot be successfully resolves since the other person is “an idiot,” a “jerk,” or…you fill in the blank. Instead of labeling and name-calling, practice kindness in the midst of conflict. Take the time to remember the other person’s positive qualities.
- Blaming interferes with successful conflict. Sometimes people blame directly. “It’s your fault!” Sometimes we use a more subtle form of blaming, “You-tooing.” “I may have left the dishes out, but you….” “Well even if I did break the dish what does it matter? You have broken lots of dishes in the past!” By blaming we avoid responsibility. We avoid looking at our own contribution to the situation. We “pass the buck.” The person we have a conflict with is more likely to take responsibility for his role in the conflict if we willingly take responsibility for our role in the conflict. Instead of blaming, accept responsibility. Apologize as needed. Take the log out of your own eye and state what you will do differently to resolve this conflict.
- Kitchen-sinking also interferes with successful conflict. Kitchen-sinking is throwing every past conflict and frustration into the sink when you are discussing one dirty dish. You’ve had the kitchen-sink experience. You and your spouse begin to argue about a single incident but, as the argument progresses, you both bring up “the time you forgot to put the gas in the car” or “the time you yelled at me for no reason” or “the time you went out with the guys instead of watching a movie with me” or…you get the idea. I’ve heard couples bring up things that happened 20 years ago when they begin to argue about a specific incident that occurred yesterday. Kitchen-sinking prevents you from resolving anything. Stop kitchen-sinking. Instead, deal with one incident at a time. Love does not keep a record of wrongs. So, once you resolve an incident put it to rest. No need to beat a dead horse. Resolve it and let it go.
- Generalizing interferes with successful conflict. We generalize with words like “always” and “never.” “You never listen to me.” “You always get your way.” Such generalization increase defensiveness. The other person feels the need to “prove” the generalization wrong. The conflict becomes a surface battle of events rather than the deeper dialogue of resolving hurt feelings and emotional disconnection. Instead of making broad generalizations, stop to think of exceptions. Consider times that counter the generalization. Instead of making broad generalizations, deal with the incident at hand…no more, no less. It is not an issue of “always” or “never” but an issue of “today” and “this time.”
Avoiding these five practices will help you experience the true joys of a successful family conflict.
If you have been married for any length of time, you know that arguments happen. If you have ever parented a teen, you definitely know that arguments happen. And arguments escalate. Each person conspires to make the other person understand “what I’m saying.” Defensiveness increases. Voices get louder. Heart rates begin to increase. Breathing accelerates. Many people find their jaw tightening. Other body muscles begin to tighten. Each person becomes determined to prove “my position” and “defeat” the other person’s position. In other words, the argument is no longer about resolution. The body has moved into a fight or flight response. Each person is either looking to fight and win or shut down and escape. Neither choice helps resolve the disagreement. But, there is a way to win this argument. That’s right. Here is a technique you can use to win an argument, even after it has gotten to the level of “fight or flight.” This solution will sound counterintuitive, but it is the best move to make. The move…? Take a thirty minute break! I told you it sounds counterintuitive. But, it is true. The best way to resolve the disagreement and win the argument is to take a break. Dr. John Gottman wrote about this idea in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. “In one of my experiments,” he noted, “we interrupted couples after 15 minutes [of arguing] and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. When they started talking about their issue again, their heart rates were significantly lower and their interaction more productive.” In other words, a thirty minute break in which both parties focused on something other than the argument, helped them calm down. Their heart rate returned to normal. Their breathing returned to normal. The stress hormones pulsing through their veins decreased. As a result, they could think more clearly. It was no longer about survival. It was about resolution. They could think about their partner and what was best for their relationship instead of focusing on defending themselves. They could listen better…and understand. So, next time you find yourself in an argument with a family member that seems like it is going nowhere, take a break. In fact, take a thirty minute break and focus on something else. Then, come back, discuss the disagreement, and search for a resolution.
Who should you think about during an argument with your spouse—me, you, I, us??? That is a good question. We have probably all heard the advice to step back and see our spouse’s point of view during an argument. This common wisdom advises us to see things through the other person’s eyes and walk a mile in his or her shoes. When you do, the advice-giver explains, you will feel less upset. Your understanding will improve. You will more quickly resolve the conflict…so the advice goes. However, recent research suggests this folk wisdom may be wrong! In fact, a study of 111 couples found that taking the other person’s perspective actually made things worse, especially for those with a “less-than-positive sense of self-worth.” Now, let’s face it…in the midst of a fight with our spouse you can bet that at least one person is experiencing a “less-than-positive sense of self-worth.” Anyway, it seems that when a person looks at the conflict from his spouse’s perspective, he begins to wonder what they are thinking or feeling about him. In other words, when I look through my spouse’s eyes I see myself…and begin to wonder what she is thinking about me in the midst of the conflict. Thoughts I imagine my spouse having about me take up my mental energy and focus. “She’s blaming me!” “He thinks I don’t care.” “She’s angry about my work.” “She doesn’t believe I’m trying my hardest.” These thoughts and thoughts like them increase our self-doubt and decrease our sense of self-worth. When the argument is over, the person who looked at things through his spouse’s eyes feels even less satisfied and more insecure in their relationship.
Instead of trying to see the conflict from your spouse’s point of view, take a more objective approach with these two suggestions.
- Imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. This is different than seeing things from your spouse’s perspective. Rather than imagining how your spouse feels or how your spouse thinks about this conflict, imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. Couples who did this showed an increase in empathy.
- Put on your Sherlock Holmes’s hat and get curious about your spouse. Observe your spouse’s behavior. Take the time to notice how your words, actions, and tone of voice impact them. Respectfully and lovingly modify your words and actions to elicit the most helpful response in the situation. In other words, discuss the difficult issue using a tone of voice that will help your spouse to stay calm and words more likely to elicit a calm response. Go ahead and disagree, but use respectful words and end with a hug. You get the idea. Observe your spouse’s reaction to you and adjust your behavior accordingly.
Forget the folk wisdom…quit taking your spouse’s perspective. Take an objective view. Watch your spouse and work to soothe them as you imagine what you might feel in the same situation…and enjoy a “satisfying” argument.