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Ten Commandments for Effective Conflict

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.

Improve Your Marriage with One Simple, Daily Activity

I love being married. I find more joy and happiness, adventure and excitement, joy and contentment, even fun and ecstasy with my wife than I could have ever imagined.  But, let’s face it. Marriage is not all fun and games. It’s not always easy. I also experience irritations and frustrations in my marriage that impact me more deeply than any I experience in other relationships. I’m sure my wife can say the same. (Still, I did plead perfection when telling her about this blog. She simply snickered and shook her head in response. Go figure.) Anyway, the Florida State University’s Family Institute suggests a way to increase the positive side of marriage and decrease the negative, increase the joy and excitement while limiting the frustrations and anger. And, it’s based on over 20 years of research! (Full disclosure—I only reviewed some of the studies from the last 10 years.) Based on their research, staff at the Florida State University’s Family Institute suggests an activity that any of us can engage in on a daily basis to improve our marriages. It’s simple, yet powerful; easy to do yet profound in its impact. Want to know what activity they suggest? Praying for your spouse. That’s right. Praying! Coming before God (your Higher Power) to ask that your spouse be blessed and protected. Making intercession with God for your spouse; asking Him to help your spouse achieve his or her goals. One caveat—none of these prayers in these studies asked for their partners to become the person they wanted them to be. No, they offered sincere, unselfish prayers focused on their partner’s well-being. Overall, research suggests that saying prayers for one’s partner has many positive effects. Let me share just a few from the last 10 years of research (Read more here).

  1. Praying for one’s spouse has a softening effect on conflict (Butler et al, 1998). In other words, conflict becomes less harsh for those who have a praying spouse.
  2. Praying for one’s spouse predicts relationship satisfaction beyond what positive or negative behaviors in the relationship can predict (Lambert et al, 2008).
  3. Praying for one’s spouse over a 4-week period leads to greater gratitude toward one’s spouse than did thinking positive thoughts about one’s spouse or engaging in daily activities together (Lambert et al, 2009).
  4. Praying for one’s spouse increases the willingness of the one praying to forgive and did so more than simply speaking positively about one’s partner (Lambert et al, 2010).
  5. Praying for one’s spouse predicts greater commitment to the marriage (Fincham et al, 2010).
  6. Praying for one’s spouse while praying with your spouse leads to a greater sense of trust and unity in the relationship (Lambert et al, 2012).

Increased relationship satisfaction, more gratitude, more willingness to forgive, greater commitment, greater trust and less harsh conflict…all through the simple act of sincerely and unselfishly praying for your spouse. I’m getting started now. How about you?

It Ends Like It Begins…The Big BUT

Do you have a complaint about your spouse? Are the kids driving you crazy? Do you ever feel the need to talk with a family member about his or her irritating behavior, hurtful 馬鹿にするビジネスマンwords, or lack of consideration? Great idea; do it! Talking leads to resolution and a stronger relationship; BUT (and this is a BIG BUT) remember…how you begin the conversation is probably how the conversation will end. In fact, family researcher John Gottman, PHD, suggests that the first three minutes of a conversation not only indicate how the conversation will end but impacts the health of your long-term marriage, even predicting who will be married in six years times (Read Predicting Divorce From the First Three Minutes of Conflict Discussion for more). Scripture refers to this principle as reaping what we sow (Galatians 6:7-9). It’s true in our family conversations:

  • If we sow blame at the start the conversation, we will reap defensiveness.
  • If we sow accusations at the start the conversation, we will reap more counter-accusations.
  • If we sow verbal attacks at the start the conversation, we will reap verbal attacks in return.
  • If we sow judgments at the start of the conversation, we will reap “well you…” and more negative comments. (“I’m not a puppet, you’re the puppet.”)

On the other hand…

  • If we sow an acknowledgement of positive actions done in the past, we reap gratitude and more positive acknowledgements.
  • If we sow recognition of positive intent, we reap thoughtful discussion about ways to act on that intent.
  • If we sow politeness at the start of the conversation, we will reap politeness in return.
  • If we sow appreciation at the start of the conversation, we will reap open ears and further appreciation.
  • If we sow positive solutions in the conversation, we will reap cooperation and mutual problem solving.
  • If we sow an acknowledgement of our personal responsibility in the situation causing stress, we will more likely reap an acknowledgement from the other person of their responsibility as well.

The fact is: we reap what we sow, even in family conversations. So, if you have a difficult subject you need to discuss with your spouse, parent, or child, take a deep breath and think. Think about the best way to start the conversation with grace, gentleness, acceptance of personal responsibility, and acknowledgement of love. After all, the conversation will end as it begins. The family you reap will grow from the seeds you sow.

Marital Conflict & the Fly on the Wall

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 Pointing fingers at each otherincreases 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!

For a Healthy Marriage Complain

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 Pointing fingers at each othermarriage. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

Keep Your Marriage Great with this 7-Minute Exercise

Research from Northwestern University (Read the research here) suggests engaging in a simple 7-minute exercise following conflict can help couples “keep that loving feeling” alive. Pointing fingers at each otherIn this two-year study, couples who completed three-seven minute writing exercises in the second year of the study were less distressed by disagreements and maintained a higher level of marital satisfaction than those who did not do the exercise. Think about it. A simple seven-minute exercise helped couples stop ruminating about the conflict, reduce conflict related stress, maintain a high level of marital satisfaction, and preserve marital quality. I don’t know about you, but taking 21 minutes a year to keep the quality of my marriage high and the stress in my marriage low sounds like a great investment! So, if you want to keep your marriage strong, do this simple 7-minute exercise.

  1. Think about and write a brief summary of a specific disagreement you had with your spouse. Write this summary from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved (you, your spouse, and your family). How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?
  2. Almost everybody finds it challenging to keep this third-party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your spouse, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-party perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner? Write down the obstacles.
  3. Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can still successfully do it. Over the next week, please do your best to take this third-party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next week? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship? Write down your ideas.

In the Northwestern study, couples only completed this exercise three times in one year and found it helpful. I would suggest doing it more often so you can make it a mental habit. After all, it only takes 7-minutes. Why not complete this simple 7-minute exercise two times per month? That’s 14-minutes a month to preserve the quality of your marriage. By the way, quality in your marriage translates into greater happiness, more satisfying interactions, and a higher quality of sexual intimacy. 14-minutes a month can help with all that? Come one! That’s an investment well worth the time!

Start Your Children’s Day with a Memory Boost

Christmas break will soon be over and our children will soon be returning to school for a new semester. How can we help them have the best day in school? Is there a way to boost their memory and increase decision-making abilities? If so, doing so could benefit their academic happy brother and sister laughing isolated on the whiteachievement and social interactions. And, a recent study suggests a possibility to actually do this (click here for PsyBlog review)! Although this study looked specifically at older adults, the review notes several studies suggest the same is true for young adults and common sense tells us it is true for children and youth. What boosts memory and decision-making abilities? Surprisingly, it is nothing extravagant or complex. In order to increase memory and positive decision-making ability in our children before school is to enhance their positive mood. Sounds simple; but, if you have kids, you know how complex it actually is to enhance a positive mood in the morning for children and teens.  How can you enhance a positive mood in your children? Here are a few ideas:

  • Prepare the night before. Set out clothes. Pack lunches. Put homework in the backpack. Do as much as you can the night before to eliminate the morning rush.
  • Do not discuss emotionally loaded topics in the morning before school. Save the potentially conflictual issues for another time and place. And, when you do have the hard discussions, don’t lecture.
  • Enjoy a healthy breakfast. A good meal helps increase positive moods. Talk with your children about the foods they prefer for breakfast and have those foods available.
  • Be aware of your children’s sensitivities. Some children like quieter mornings. Some children are irritated by bright lights in the morning. Be aware of these sensitivities and set up the environment accordingly. If necessary, dim the lights and turn down the radio. These simple steps may help produce a positive mood which can boost memory and decision-making at school.
  • Get up early enough that your children do not have to rush. Just 15-minutes earlier can provide a buffer of time to reduce stress and enhance positive mood.

Helping to enhance positive mood not only helps prepare for a positive school experience, but may help in those difficult discussions outside of school. When you need to discuss difficult topics with your children, increasing their positive mood may enhance that discussion. Increasing a positive mood in your children before such a discussion may help them make better decisions and remember the decision afterwards. So, tell a joke. Share a story. Sit down for a snack. Enjoy an activity together during the discussion. Whatever will increase their positive mood may also help the conversation go better and the outcome more enjoyable.

H.A.L.T. Family Conflict

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April, 2014, showed one source of conflict and aggression in marriage: glucose levels. Specifically, the lower the level of glucose in a person’s blood, the higher the level of aggressive impulses and the more likely they were to “blast their spouse” with a more intense and prolonged irritating noise. In other words, hunger can contribute to greater conflict and possibly even aggression. Reading this study reminded me of an important principle of healthy marriages and overall family life: Do not argue when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (H.A.L.T.). Another way of stating this principle is: Eat healthy, resolve anger quickly, develop healthy friendships, and establish healthy sleep hygiene for a healthy marriage and happy family. Briefly consider each of these principles.

  • Eat healthy rather than going hungry and devouring one another with irritability and harsh words. The study cited above highlights the need to eat healthy. A healthy diet can decrease agitation and irritation. It improves a person’s ability to learn. It also offers a great opportunity for the family to come together and build family relationships. (For more on the benefits of a healthy diet read Mom Was Right Again and Project Mealtime: A Sacred Expression of Love.)
  • Resolve anger quickly so no bitterness takes root and chokes out your family relationships. Unresolved anger lingers and bursts out at the most inopportune moments, damaging relationships and hurting feelings. For the sake of your marriage and family, resolve anger quickly. (Read Finish Your Family Business for more.)
  • Develop healthy friendships rather than trying to micromanage the lives of your spouse and children. If we intrude into the lives of our spouse or children by making them live our dream or shape their lives around our emotional needs, they may rebel against us, our ideals, and our values. Each person needs to develop their individual lives so they have more to bring to the relationship. Each person needs to develop friendships that allow them the opportunity to grow, learn, and resolve. (Check out Get Your Own Life; Leave Me Alone! to learn the benefit of this for your teen.)
  • Establish healthy sleep hygiene or you will find yourself too tired to invest energy into establishing healthy relationships. Sleep supports the immune system, facilitates learning, and improves mood. We have all seen our children grumpy because they’re tired. We have likely experienced our own grumpiness when tired. So, build healthy sleep habits into the fabric of your family. The whole family will benefit. (Click to learn about Your Teen & the Importance of Sleep and Prime Your Children for a Good School Day.)

H.A.L.T. family conflict. Eat a healthy diet. Resolve anger quickly. Develop friendships. Establish healthy sleep hygiene.

Don’t “Phub-up” Your Marriage

A study out of Baylor University suggests that married couples can damage their marriage and romance by “phubbing” their partner. Specifically, a survey of 145 people found that “phubbing” your partner creates conflict and leads to lower marital satisfaction. So, quit “phubbing” your spouse!

phubbingIf you’re like me, you have no idea whether you phub your partner or not because you have no idea what “phubbing” is. I know what you mean. I’m the same way. So, let me share what I found out. “Phubbing” is “snubbing your partner in order to look at your phone”…phubbing. (I know. Where do people come up with this stuff? But, I like it!) Anyway, this study found partners feel “phubbed” if, and I quote:

  • “My partner places his/her cellphone where they can see it when we are together.
  • My partner uses his/her cellphone when we are out together.
  • My partner uses his/her cellphone during leisure time we could spend together.
  • My partner keeps his/her cellphone in their hand when he or she is with me.
  • My partner glances at his/her cellphone when talking to me.
  • My partner checks his/ her cellphone in the midst of conversation.
  • My partner checks his/her cellphone if there is a lull in our conversation.”

In this survey 46% of the respondents had been “phubbed” by their partners. A full 23% said “phubbing” caused conflict in their relationship and 37% felt depressed about it! Think about that, one in four said “phubbing” caused conflict and one in three said it depressed them. So you can see how “phubbing” lowers marital satisfaction for the one being “phubbed.”

Perhaps we need to add a warning label to all cellphones: “Warning. Use with caution. Phubbing is harmful to your marriage and relationships, creating a 23% chance of conflict with your partner.” Or, perhaps I go to far…just quit “phubbing up” your marriage. (For more on the impact of cellphones on relational intimacy read Family Date Night Tip: Don’t Text & Date.)

Step Back Momma Bear

You see your child and another child fighting over a toy. What’s a parent to do?

Your teen daughter comes home talking about an altercation with one of her friends. Should you step in and mediate?

Your son starts off playing with another boy but you see it slowly escalate into aggressive wrestling and even some fighting. Does the parent need to intervene to stop the fighting?

 

Does your “Mamma Bear” or “Papa Wolf” jump up to protect your child in the scenarios brown bear - femaleabove? I can feel my protective tendency rising up. But, let me suggest that sometimes the best approach to such situations involves “nonintervention.” That’s right. Nonintervention is an effective tool to use in parenting. Of course a parent must practice wisdom when using nonintervention. Specifically:

  • A parent needs to know his children well enough to anticipate when and where a conflict may get out of control or become dangerous. We don’t want any child to get hurt. So, plan to step in if you see the potential for someone to get hurt.
  • A parent must remain observant of his children and any conflict that arises so he can assess if and when he does need to step in to mediate. Times will arise when a parent will need to step in to mediate, teach, and facilitate a resolution.
  • A parent also needs to focus on teaching the importance of relationship and the corresponding respect for others. Our children learn this in our daily interactions and conversations with them. They learn it by observing our actions and listening to how we talk to others. When they see us valuing relationships and showing respect to others, they will more likely do the same.
  • A parent must model healthy anger management and conflict resolution skills in relation to their spouse, friends, and children. Once again, children learn the most by watching how we act and what we say in relation to them and others.

 

Keep those four caveats in mind and nonintervention will prove itself a very effective parenting tool. As children work out their own disagreements and conflicts, they will learn how to manage contentious relationships. They will gain the strength to handle quarrels graciously. They will increase their ability to endure in healthy relationships, even in the midst of inevitable conflict. Learning to resolve differences independently will allow children to learn the art of compromise, to seek the greater good of community, and to respect one another in spite of transitory antagonism. Resolving conflict independent of adult intervention teaches our children that relationships can grow stronger through times of strife and disagreement. They will discover that community brings pleasure and pain. Perhaps more important, they will learn that pain, like pleasure, can produce intimacy when managed properly. So, take a step back Momma Bear. Slow down Papa Wolf. Give your kids a little time and space to work things out on their own. You might be pleasantly surprised with their creative resolution and their growing maturity!

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