Tag Archive for resolving conflict

3 Elements of a Healthy Marriage

Healthy marriages face challenges. Any time two different people from two different backgrounds with two unique sets of values and communication nuances work to become one unit (a marriage), you are bond to have some conflict. Fortunately, challenges and conflict do not cancel out a healthy marriage. In fact, challenges and conflict present wonderful opportunities to grow more intimate as a couple…as long as the couple handles them with grace. How can couples handle challenges and conflicts with the grace that brings intimacy? Here are 3 suggestions.

  • Embrace the Conflict. Conflict happens. You might as well accept it. In fact, turn toward the conflict. Recognize the moment of conflict as an opportunity to learn about your spouse. Listen carefully to their point of view and you will discover amazing things about your spouse. You will discover that wrapped inside the conflict and your spouse’s emotions is a treasure chest overflowing with information about their values, fears, hopes, and dreams. 
  • Accept the 69. Gottman found that couples who returned to his “love lab” as part of ongoing research would often have the same disagreements they had even five years ago. In fact, his research revealed that about two thirds of all conflicts are unsolvable. They represent differences of personality and style. You could address them with anger and impatience…but that will not change anything. It will not strengthen your relationship. And, the conflict will remain. So, what can you do? Healthy couples do not avoid the conflict or disagreement. They learn to manage them differently, with honor and grace. For instance, they learn to use humor and repair statements during their disagreements forge strong marriages. They also believe and practice point number 3 below.
  • You Need Two Honest Voices to Forge a Strong Marriage. That means couples need to talk about hard feelings, frustrations, and conflicts as well as the celebrations and joys. (Because it ruins a marriage to Shut Up and Put Up.) No matter the content of the conversation, we must remain respectful and kind, even when we might disagree. We must listen, especially when we disagree. When handled with care and love, healthy relationships can handle two opinions. When both people remain open, both people feel accepted. When both people listen, both people feel heard. In the process, both people learn and grow more intimate with one another. Their love grows as they resolve their solvable disagreements  and as they learn to accept their unsolvable conflicts with grace and love.

Yes. Healthy marriages face challenges. Healthy marriages embrace those challenges because you need two honest voices to forge a strong marriage.

How Happy Couples Fight

Couples have disagreements. They argue. They get angry at one another. But many couples remain happily together in spite of this. How do they do it? How can a happy couple still have marital problems? That’s the question that a group of researchers (Rauer, Sabey, Proulx, & Volling) set out to answer. To answer the question, they looked at two groups of heterosexual married couples. One group was in their mid-to-late thirties and had been married an average of nine years. The other group was in their early seventies and had been married an average of 42 years. Researchers observed the couples discussing marital problems. This is what they discovered.

  1. Happy couples focused on issues with clear solutions first. This involved issues like distribution of household chores or how to spend their free time. The solutions to these problems were more concrete, measurable so to speak. Focusing on more solvable problems built up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. It strengthened the sense of “we” in the relationship as they worked to successfully solve these “issues.” It helped to enhance intimacy.
  2. Happy couples rarely focused on those problems that involved more difficult solutions. They focused less on those perpetual problems. Perhaps more difficult-to-solve problems threatened each partners’ confidence in the relationship. By focusing on the more solvable problems, they built a solid base of security that allowed for the greater possibility of solving some of the more difficult problems through willing sacrifice and difficult compromise as well.
  3. Couples married longer reported fewer serious issues. They also reported arguing less overall. This, in combination with other research, suggests that happy couples learn to prioritize their marriage. Over time, they come to realize that some issues just aren’t worth the argument. They learn to choose their battles wisely.

So, how do happy couples fight? In the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones, they “choose wisely.” They choose to focus first on those solvable problems in their marriage. Doing so builds a foundation of trust, a strong sense of security. It is a practical way of prioritizing the “we” of their marriage above the individual. This foundation allows them to solve some problems that remain more difficult to resolve. As they do this, they learn to prioritize their marriage above individual wants and desires, even those desires one partner may believe to be a need. Ironically, they even learn that some of those “difficult-to-solve” problems really aren’t as essential as they use to believe. They just aren’t worth the argument. The relationship is more important. And rather than watching their marriage decay in the pain of bad decisions (like the man who drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones), they focus on gaining the intimacy, wisdom, and joy of a happy marriage. They “choose wisely.”

After the Fight: Cold War or Intimate Harmony

Every family has conflict. It’s inevitable. Couples are going to disagree and argue. Siblings are going to clash, compete, and struggle with one another. Parental wisdom and desires are going to collide with their children’s push for independence. These skirmishes can create a cold war within the family; or, they can promote an intimate harmony within the family. What makes the difference?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas asked the same question. To find an answer, they recruited 226 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary of their conflicts for two weeks. They also gave them a checklist of behaviors to indicate how they resolved their conflicts. The checklist had 18 possible post-conflict behaviors that fell into one of four categories. (The 18 post-conflict behaviors and the four related categories were determined from a previous study by the same group of researchers.) At the end of the two-week period, each couple came to the lab where they engaged in “discussions” centered on two of their conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. The researchers observed each couple’s arguments first-hand in this setting. They discovered that a cold war or a more intimate family resulted not from the argument itself, but from which of the four categories of behaviors their post-conflict actions fell into.

  1. Avoidance, one of the four categories of post-conflict behavior, was more likely to result in a cold war. Such practices might include “pretending” like everything is fine even though no resolution was reached, not talking about it, or just ignoring the issue. As you can imagine, avoiding the issue does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. At best, a cold war can ensue. At worst, Shut Up and Put Up can Ruin Your Marriage.
  2. Letting go, another strategy couples use following a conflict, had in mixed results.  Letting go can work wonders for small issues like whether the toilet paper goes over the top or the bottom (top, of course) or whether the toothpaste is squeezed from the middle or bottom (bottom, obviously). But letting go can prove much less effective in larger issues…and, in such cases can lead to a cold war. Gottman suggests that 69% of marital issues are “perpetual problems.” They are unsolvable. They may be the result of differences in personality (extraverted vs. introverted, for example) or lifestyle (desire to travel, level of  house clutter tolerated, etc.). When it comes to “perpetual problems,” we need to accept the ways in which our spouse is different than us. At the same time, these issues don’t go away. Couples will continually return to them in their disagreements and arguments. To keep them from destroying the relationship, couples must learn to approach the conflict of “perpetual problems” with gentleness, personal responsibility, and humor. They must learn to build an overall environment of gratitude and appreciation into their home. Letting go, in and of itself, is incomplete and not effective in the bigger, more perpetual problems.
  3. Gaining new perspective, another post-conflict behavior, sounds like a great option. We are often encouraged to take our spouse’s perspective. Taking perspective can help us gain understanding and build a willingness to compromise…maybe. But if the compromise is one-sided or given begrudgingly, it can lay a root of bitterness, lingering ill-feelings, or even anger at the lack of perceived reciprocation. The result? A potential cold war. So, quit taking your spouse’s perspective and become more like a fly on the wall instead.
  4. Active repair, the final category of post-conflict behaviors, stood out above all the others in effectively promoting an intimate harmony and happiness. Active repair builds harmony through intentional listening, expressions of affection, and learning to give it up to lift up your marriage.

Conflict, disagreement, arguments…they can lead to a cold war or they can promote a more intimate harmony. It all depends on what you do after the conflict. What will you do? Avoid? Let it go? Gain new perspective? Work toward actively repairing the relationship? The choice is clear. Actively repair will promote more intimate harmony…and that is well worth the effort.

Is It Hysterical or Historical? Probably Both!

Have you ever had an experience like this? Your spouse reacts strongly to something that seems insignificant to you. You feel like you made a simple mistake, but your spouse seems to think you were intentionally expressing hate toward them. You didn’t pick up a dirty sock, but your spouse seems to think you don’t value anything they do.

On the other hand, maybe you were the one who react strongly and later wonder, “Why did I get so angry about that?”

If you’ve had either of these experiences (and most of us have), here is a saying that sheds light on your confusion. “When it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” In other words, if you or your spouse have a reaction that seems extreme given the situation that provoked it, the reason behind the reaction may be historical. The reason behind the reaction may come from the past.  Rather than get “hysterical,” it will prove more helpful to become an investigator of the “historical.” Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, grab your magnifying glass, and do a little detective work. Here are some questions that might help start the investigation.

  • Did you ever have a similar feeling as a child? In previous relationships?
    • When was the first time?
    • How often did you have that feeling?
  • Describe the feeling and the circumstances that led to the feeling in the past?
    • What thoughts go through your mind?
    • Do you see any images or colors?
    • How does your body feel?
  • What have these feelings and their related circumstances come to mean to you now?
    • Objectively, do the circumstances really hold this meaning?
    • Objectively, what meaning do the feelings and circumstances hold?
  • How is this circumstance and my current relationship different than my past experiences?

With the information you gain through this small piece of investigative work into your own life, you can approach your spouse and the frustrating circumstance differently. You can use the circumstances to open up about personal vulnerabilities and ask your spouse for help in responding to those vulnerabilities. You can draw closer to one another and more intimate with one another. Rather than responding “hysterically,” you can respond “vulnerably” and find your relationship growing stronger and more intimate. So, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, pick up your magnifying glass, and let the investigation begin.

That Makes Me So Mad!!

It happened. Your spouse has done something that makes you angry. No, furious. They’ve made you furious! Your blood is boiling and you’re about to blow your top. But wait. Will that really get the results you seek? Has it worked in the past? Probably not. You know that your angry outburst in the past immediately flooded your spouse with emotions and they either attacked back or shut down. Neither response helped. There has to be a better way.

Breath. Calm down. Think. Perhaps if you approach the situation calmly, things will turn out differently. In fact, when it comes to this kind of interaction, it ends like it begins. If you offer an objective description of what aroused your anger it might elicit a different response, a greater possibility of change. So, start with a calm description of objective facts and the emotions you felt in response to those facts. Oh, look. They look somewhat surprised at how calm you are; and, they’re listening. They’re not getting defensive or shutting down or blaming in response. They’re simply paying attention and listening. That’s nice…good. What now?

Now focus on the behavior you desire from them. Don’t get stuck on what you think they did wrong. If you dwell on past mistakes or behaviors you don’t like, they’ll feel the need to defend themselves and cast blame elsewhere. Move on to what you desire instead. Give them a solution. Give them a way out. Clearly and specifically make the request of what they could do to help you. After all, they love you and want you to be happier. They want a deeper relationship with you. Let them know, clearly and calmly, what they could do to help you draw closer to them. Yes! They’re nodding their head in agreement.

Now open up and be a little vulnerable. Explain why this change in behavior would mean so much to you. Let them know something about your deeper motivations, the reason for requesting this change from them. Maybe your deeper need is one of security and this change will make you feel more secure. Maybe it’s a need for more affection because of personality or childhood experiences. Whatever the reason, open up and tell them about your need. Then make your request again, adding that this change in their behavior will help you. They’re looking closely at you now. You can tell they feel closer to you…and you realize you feel closer to them. Being vulnerable has brought you closer together. “Yes, I will work on making this change for you. I love you.” That’s exactly what you wanted to hear. Hug and enjoy one another’s presence for a moment. Express your gratitude. “Thank you for listening and being willing to work on this with me. Thank you.”

One last thing to do. Every time you see your spouse make an effort to do what you requested, thank them. Let them know you see their effort by acknowledging it. Knowing you recognize their effort will encourage them to continue making the effort to change. And isn’t that what you really wanted when you were about to blow you top?   

Marital Warning: Don’t Argue While Hungry

Hangry. The bad-tempered, irritable, agitated state a person experiences when they are hungry. Snickers made a whole series of humorous commercials based on it.

Hangry. It’s a real thing…and it can wreak havoc on your marriage. Just consider this study involving married couples and a “spouse doll.” Researchers gave participants a “spouse doll” for three weeks. Every night during those three weeks they could “jab their spouse doll” with pins. The number of pins used in the “jabbing session” increased as the poker partner’s blood sugar went down. In other words, the hungrier the spouse doing the poking, the more pins they stuck in their spouse doll! The “hangrier” the spouse, the more vengeful they became.   

The same researchers invited these couples to their lab at the end of the three-week period. They put them in two separate rooms and set up a friendly competition. The partners would compete with one another to see who could push a button faster in response to a target turning red. (In reality, they were competing against a computer so the researchers could control the winner.) Whoever “won” had the opportunity to blast their spouse’s headphones with a noise as loud and as long as they wanted. Guess what. The lower the “winner’s” blood sugar, the louder and longer they blasted the noise. Hunger increased the negative actions of the “winning” spouse. Hangry spouses were just plain meaner.

In a different study, people were asked to interpret another person’s body language. They were better able to interpret another person’s body language after having a drink of lemonade with real sugar in it. (The artificial sweeteners did not have the same effect.) In other words, hunger made a person less able to read another person’s body language. Hangry people are less aware of their partner’s body language and, as a result, their partner’s subtle responses and emotions.

These studies reveal a great piece of advice for married couples. Don’t have that argument when one or both of you is hangry. Don’t discuss areas of disagreement when hangry. Hangry is not a good state for marital disagreements. Hangry will just make your marital disagreement worse. So, if you and your spouse have a disagreement, don’t talk it out while hungry. Instead, have a nice dinner and then talk about it over dessert. It’s like food therapy for marriage. Have a disagreement? Go get a snack and talk about it while you eat. Making a big decision in which you have different opinions? Get some dinner and talk about it after ordering dessert. And…don’t get a spouse doll to stick pins in. That’s just crazy!

Expectations, Skills, & a Happy Marriage

What are your expectations in marriage? If your expectations are unrealistic, you’re probably going to be disappointed. The “lived happily ever after” expectation just doesn’t really work out that well. We all have our down times. Nor does the “you complete me” mentality make for a happy marriage. In the long run, we need to become complete as individuals before we can find true happiness with a marriage partner. (Read “You Complete Me” Kills a Marriage for more.)

On the other hand, having low expectations will also lead to a less satisfying marriage. After all, if a person has low expectations for their marriage, how hard will they work to make their marriage better? A long-term satisfying marriage requires investment. Healthy expectations for your marriage will lead to a greater investment in your marriage. Think of it in terms of money. If I thought hard work would profit me five dollars, I’d only work hard enough for five dollars. However, if believe hard work would lead to a thousand dollars, I’d put in a little more time and effort. Low expectations lead to less investment which leads to a less satisfying marriage.  So, what are healthy expectations for a marriage? Here are a few. After you read them over, consider what you would want to add to the list.  

  • Long-term commitment.
  • Verbal affection.
  • Physical closeness.
  • Honor and respect for one another.
  • Consideration for one another.
  • Quality time together.
  • Acceptance.
  • Honest sharing.
  • Open communication.

A happy marriage takes more than healthy expectations though. A happy, satisfying marriage requires the skills to build those expectations, to create an environment in which those expectations might become reality. In other words, a happy marriage requires the relationship skills and problem-solving skills needed to make healthy expectations a reality. (Positive Expectations in the Early Years of Marriage: Should Couples Expect the Best or Brace for the Worst?) Perhaps some of the most important skills needed to create a happy marriage include the skills of listening, resolving conflict, compromising, negotiating, and honoring one another. Take the time to improve in those skills every year…your marriage will thank you for it!

A Few Random Thoughts About Marital Conflict

There’s a New Yorker Cartoon in which a couple is arguing. One says to the other, “I can’t remember what we’re arguing about, either. Let’s keep yelling, and maybe it will come back to us.”  I chuckled when I saw that cartoon. It’s true. Many couples do not remember what they are fighting about. They remember the emotion, the hurtful words, the dirty looks…but they don’t recall the reason for the argument. They might continue yelling, but they still don’t remember what started the argument. So why blow up over a topic that you may not even remember tomorrow? Avoid the hurtful words, the dirty looks, the angry comebacks…your spouse will remember them and the damage they have on your relationship is huge. Instead, listen, understand, and bless. That will give you something better to remember and will even change quite a few arguments!

Sincere apologies work miracles. It’s true. But, a sincere apology is more than mere words. A sincere apology reveals genuine remorse for what was done and how it impacted the other person. A sincere apology accepts responsibility for the actions that caused the hurt and a sincere apology reassures the other of your love for them. A sincere apology involves the “fruit of repentance” as well, actions that replace the hurtful action and assure it does not happen again. A sincere apology requires humility, responsibility, and change. It’s well worth it though. A sincere apology not only restores relationship, it strengthens relationship. Sincere apologies work miracles. (Read The Top 6 Components of an Effective Apology for more.)

Time out is not just for the kids. Sometimes, couples need a “time out” to cool down. They need to stop the argument for a short time (20 minutes at least), “go to their respective corners,” and calm down. Calming down will require each one to put their mind on a topic other than the one they were fighting about. You can go for a walk, play a game, read a good story, watch a comedy, skim through magazines…whatever it takes to help you put the topic of the argument out of your mind long enough to “calm down.”  After emotions have cooled, come back together over a cup of hot cocoa and cookies (or some equivalent) to talk about the problem that caused the argument. You’ll likely find it isn’t really the big deal it had become prior to your “time out.” In a calm state, you will more easily resolve the differences or simply “agree to disagree.” It all begins with a “time out” to calm down.

One last thought. If you want to resolve an argument more quickly and calmly stop trying to figure out how your spouse has it all wrong. Instead, figure out what your spouse has right. Every perspective has some validity. Find your spouse’s valid point of view. Listen to the emotion and the priority behind your spouse’s perspective. What emotions, priorities, or concerns are driving their passion. Acknowledge their emotion. Accept their priority. Recognize areas in which you can agree with them. Then, build your solution from there. (Turn Your Argument Into the Best Part of the Day provides more tips for resolving arguments in a healthy way.)

 

*Cartoon downloaded from <https://www.art.com/products/p15063422260-sa-i6846321/david-sipress-i-can-t-remember-what-we-re-arguing-about-either-let-s-keep-yelling-an-new-yorker-cartoon.htm?RFID=765957>

Build Intimacy Before, During, & After Your Marital Conflict

All couples experience disagreements, even arguments and conflict. But, did you know you can build a more intimate relationship with your spouse before, during, and after the disagreements and conflicts?  Let me count the ways (well, at least five for before, five for during, and five for after).

BEFORE:

  1. Make daily deposits of honor and grace into your Family Bank of Honor by sharing polite words, expressions of affection, and loving touch. (Read The Tongue in the Family Bank of Honor for verbal daily deposits.)
  2. Become a student of spouse. Learn about their likes, interests, vulnerabilities, and fears.
  3. Express gratitude to your spouse every day.
  4. Tell your spouse about the traits you admire in them. Let them know what they do and say that you admire and appreciate.
  5. Show kindness to your spouse every day.

DURING:

  1. Take a breath and remember all the traits you love and adore about your spouse.
  2. Remain calm. Take a breath and maintain the use of polite words.
  3. Listen to understand. Then listen some more to make sure you understand.
  4. Do not threaten, blame, criticize, or show contempt. Instead, be brutally honest with yourself. Humbly take responsibility for any way your actions and words contribute to the argument.
  5. Seek a solution, a third alternative that can show love and the priority of your relationship. (Assume Love explains the third alternative.)

AFTER:

  1. Reaffirm your love for your spouse. Let them know how much you love them.
  2. Apologize. Chances are you did something during the disagreement that requires an apology. So, apologize.
  3. Give your spouse a big hug and a sincere kiss.
  4. Review your contribution to the argument and change your behavior accordingly.
  5. Bear the fruit of a sincere apology. (More in Stop Apologizing & Bear Fruit)

I’m sure there are many more ways to build intimacy before, during, and after an argument, but these 15 ideas will give you a start. What ideas would you add to the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

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.

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