Maybe the Beatles had something important for couples in conflict. They may not have known it, but nonetheless, it was an important message for couples in conflict. That message? “I want to hold your hand.” That’s right. Usually, we talk about improving verbal communication when it comes to conflict with our spouses. But the Beatles had a really good suggestion, improve nonverbal communication…hold hands. At least that’s the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in April of 2020. Specifically, this study looked at the impact of holding hands on a married couple in conflict during and after their conflict.
During the conflict, this study showed that holding hands had a calming effect on men. It was also associated with an increase in positive affect (positive emotions and interactions) and a decrease in negative communication for both men and women.
After the conflict, holding hands led to a lower heart rate and an increase in positive emotions and interactions.
So, next time you find yourself bordering on a heated conversation or a conflict with your spouse, take a breath, reach out a hand, and sing an invitation: “I want to hold your hand.” Then, while holding hands, discuss the conflict at hand.
If you’ve been married longer than your honeymoon, you know that marital conflicts will arise. Even people who love one another and want to spend the rest of their lives together have disagreements. Those conflicts and disagreements also impact their children. On the one hand, angry, stressed-out parents might take their anger out on their children in small and subtle ways or in loud and obvious ways. They may withdraw emotionally or physically from their family and children. On the other hand, they might manage their conflict in a way that teaches their children how to love a person even while you disagree with them…and to love enough to work toward some type of resolution. It can go either way, depending on how the couple responds to conflict in their marriage. With this in mind, you can image the impact marital conflict can have on our children’s long-term emotional health and well-being…for better or for worse.
To understand the impact of marital conflict on our children, one study analyzed data from 3,955 heterosexual intact families (both mother and father were present in the family). They discovered an important role fathers play in how a married couple’s conflict impacts their children. Specifically, when fathers reported more frequent conflict with their marriage partner, they also reported increased parenting stress and decreased warmth toward their children. In the same surveys, this was linked to the mother’s report of children struggling to develop social skills and emotional regulation skills.
On the other hand, when fathers used more “constructive conflict resolution” skills, parental stress was minimized, parental involvement increased, and warmth toward children increased. All this leads to healthier social and emotional development in children. So, the big question I have from this research is: what are constructive conflict resolution skills? Let’s name a few.
Open communication. Children benefit when both parents, fathers in particular, learn to communicate openly. This requires exhibiting enough vulnerability to express emotions and feelings, to risk being misunderstood while patiently listening to understand the other person. Couples can help fathers communicate openly by starting conversations “gently” and soothing one another as the conversation progresses.
Compromising. Being a family involves compromise. Not everyone can have everything they want all the time. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s true. We don’t live with Burger King. Every person in the family is going to have their own opinions, perspectives, and ideas. Meshing them all together into a happy, healthy home will demand compromise. Look for a resolution with which you can both be satisfied.
Listening. I briefly mentioned listening under open communication, but listening is so important that it deserves its own bullet point. Many times, if both parties in conflict will listen deeply and intentionally to the other person, rather than defending or blaming, they will discover their conflict is not really that big. They will easily find a compromise. In fact, they may even find they agree on a deeper level than the conflict suggests. So, listen, don’t judge. Listen to understand rather than listening to form a rebuttal. Listen to find the good in what the other person is saying, areas in which you can agree, rather than listening to prove them wrong.
Remember who you are talking to. You are talking to the one you love, your spouse, the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. Don’t let your frustration or anger lead to statements that hurt, belittle, or demean the one you love. Remember how much they have done to make your life and your home a better place.
Remember how you want others to remember you. Do you want to be remembered as someone who always “had to be right” or someone “who listened so well I always knew they understood me”? Do you want to be remembered as someone who “blew their stack” when they didn’t get their way or someone who “always found a solution everyone could be happy with”? Someone who was always kind, even when angry, or someone who was unpredictable and loud when angry? Act accordingly…especially in the midst of conflict.
As you practice these skills and attitudes, you will find conflict resolves more easily. You will feel less stress. Your marriage will grow more intimate. And your children will develop in a healthier manner.
Jesus knew that words are powerful. He once said, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder….’ But I say to you that…whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” Did you catch the power of words in this statement. He equated name-calling with murder.
If you think that sounds a little extreme, consider the findings of a study completed by Ohio State University in 2005. This landmark study revealed that the stress a couple feels during a brief marital argument slowed down each person’s ability to heal from a wound. The authors of this study focused on the impact of the immediate negativity of their argument. This single argument negatively impacted the effectiveness of each individual’s immune system to heal a wound.
In March 2023, as part of a postdoctoral study, this data was analyzed once again and the additional findings published in Psychoneuroendrocrinology. The authors of this study focused on the impact of ongoing negative interactions as well as the single negative interaction. They noted that:
The couples who reported using demand/withdraw communication patterns or mutually avoidant communication patterns on a regular basis during marital arguments had higher blood indicators of inflammation, exhibited slower wound healing, and showed greater negative emotion and less positive emotion. In other words, a pattern of negative communication over differences resulted in negative consequences for each person’s body and emotions.
These communication patterns also influenced their behaviors. If their typical discussion-based behaviors were more negative, their wounds heal more slowly. They also reported fewer positive emotions and they evaluated the marital argument more negatively.
In other words, when a couple’s daily pattern of communication involves demanding and withdrawing or simply mutual avoidance, they will experience more negative emotions and fewer positive emotions. As a result, their immune system becomes less effective. They will heal more slowly from wounds. Arguments, managed poorly, can be deadly…or, when handled with love, the best part of your day. Words and actions, especially in the heat of an argument, are powerful.
To paraphrase Jesus, “You may have heard it said, ‘Do not physically hurt your spouse. But I say to you that anyone who calls his spouse a name is destroying their body. And whoever engages in constant demanding or withdrawing behavior rather than lovingly accepting one another’s influence and pursuing a healthy compromise (peace), is putting themselves and their spouse in a fiery hell in which healing and positive emotions are harder and harder to find.” Take the results of this study to heart. Learn to listen, accept influence, and resolve arguments in love…for the sake of your life and the life of your spouse.
When my children were younger, one of my favorite cartoons to watch with them was “PB&J Otter.” Actually, I liked one part of the cartoon in particular. Each episode led to a moment in which the main characters didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, one would suggest they “do the noodle dance.” Peanut, Jelly, and Baby Butter would start to dance as lyrics sang in the background:
“Noodle, use your noodle; noodle, do the noodle dance… Solve a problem, it’s no strain, use your noodle, that’s your brain…There’s an answer you can find, use your noodle, that’s your mind… In a bind, just use your mind, use your noodle.”
As they danced, something happened. They moved from the “paralysis of analysis” to the “I got it” moment. In other words, they discovered a solution to the problem. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? But research supports the idea that movement helps us “get unstuck” and “frees up” our thinking. When we “move” with another person, it helps us get “in-sync” with them and increases our openness and cooperation. In other words, the “Noodle Dance Principle” could come in handy in your home! No, I’m not saying you have to do the noodle dance itself…although you can if you want, and it is kind of fun. I’m simply suggesting you utilize the “Noodle Dance Principle” when problems or disagreements arise in your home. Specifically, when you get stuck on a problem or disagreement:
Get up and move. Go for a walk alone and think. This can help you calm down and think more clearly. Or go for a walk together as you discuss the issue at hand. Research suggests that moving increases motivation and the likelihood of resolving conflict. It frees up your thoughts and feelings, increasing the probability of finding a solution or of reaching a compromise. Don’t want to walk? Try going on a bike ride. Still too much? Pull up a couple of rocking chairs and rock while you talk. Or sit on a swing and swing as you put your heads together to find an answer. Find a seesaw and take turns talking as you go up and down the issues that need resolved. Whatever you do, get up and move. As noted earlier, moving enhances cooperation and gets us in-sync with those we move with. It also makes people more willing to make personal sacrifices that benefit the group. Get up and move.
Physically map out the problem or disagreement. Grab a whiteboard or some paper and sketch out your main points. Not only does this get you moving, it also makes an abstract issue visible. You can draw arrows connecting areas of agreement and highlighting common priorities. You might even move these areas of agreement and common priority to a common area on the whiteboard. Then you can co-create a solution incorporating areas of agreement and consideration for areas of difference.
These two suggestions can help you get moving toward a solution when family problems arise…or moving toward a resolution when you find yourself in a heated disagreement. So go ahead. When a problem or disagreement arises in your house, do the noodle dance…at least get up and get moving.
Want a marriage with great sex? Dumb question…every married person does, right? And, truth be told, several factors contribute to a satisfying sexual relationship in marriage. But a study published in January, 2021, reveals two of the important factors for a satisfying sexual relationship in marriage. This study utilized data collected from 7,114 heterosexual couples across the United States. Both husbands and wives completed various surveys to determine how forgiving they were toward their spouse, the quality of their conflict resolution, and their level of sexual satisfaction. Not surprisingly, the higher the quality of conflict resolution, the greater the level of reported sexual satisfaction for both the husbands and wives. It seems that “make up sex” really is good when conflict is resolved well.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, was only related to greater sexual satisfaction for husbands, not wives. In other words, husbands with a greater willingness to forgive (a “higher level of forgiveness”) reported greater sexual satisfaction. To those of you who are husbands, pride interferes with forgiveness. Take the humble road and forgive your wife when the time arises…and it will. After all, humility is hot in a marriage.
Here’s the takeaway. If you want to have greater sexual satisfaction in your marriage, learn to resolve your marital conflicts well; and husbands, learn to forgive. If you struggle with resolving conflicting in your marriage, here are some helps to get you started:
Did you ever notice how we often give our friends a break when they do something that irritates us? They show up late for our coffee date…”probably caught in traffic” or “had trouble getting the kids off to school.” They didn’t bring us the recipe we had asked for… “oh well, I’ll get it next time” or “they can email it to me.” They look at you with what might be anger…”better ask what’s going on, maybe their upset about something.” In each situation, we offer understanding. We give the benefit of the doubt. We cut them some slack.
But, when our spouse does the exact same things, we jump to a conclusion, automatically assuming the worst, and launch into an attack. They show up late for dinner…”they have no consideration for me and my time!” They forget to complete a task we had asked them to do…”they never listen to me, and I end up doing all the work around here.” They have a look that might be angry…”They better not be angry at me. They have no reason to be angry with me.”
Why is that? Why do we give our friends, and even strangers, the benefit of the doubt but assume the worst about our spouse? Perhaps we need to take the time to give our spouse the benefit of the doubt…and here are five steps to help.
Remember their past actions. Chances are that your spouse thinks of you often. They do things for you because they love you. They most likely respond to your requests the majority of the time. Take time to remember their positive actions from the past. Recall those times you experienced their love for you in their words and actions. Recall positive times together. Recall things they have done just for you, things they did because they know you liked to do it.
Consider alternative explanations for the behavior you currently find irritating. The first explanation may be one that causes irritation. Take time to consider if there are other explanations, possible extenuating circumstances, or even good reasons for their current behavior or the current situation.
Talk to them about the behavior but start the conversation gently. Use a polite tone and avoid blame, like you would with your friends. Remember, your conversation will end like it begins. So, use an “I-statement” to objectively describe the behavior you observe. “I notice that….” “I get a little upset when people….” Don’t evaluate or judge, simply describe. Then say what you would hope for or want more of. Don’t expect them to read your mind. Simply state what you desire in a clear, polite, concise manner.
When you’re on the receiving end of this discussion, remember to take responsibility. Getting defensive when your spouse talks about something bothering them will increase the chances of them assuming the worst. When we take responsibility for our actions, our spouses can give us the benefit of the doubt knowing we are motivated to improving our marriage. (Learn more in Don’t Let Defensiveness Ruin Your Marriage, Take the Antidote.)
In a healthy marriage, both spouses assume the best about the other. They give one another the benefit of the doubt. They cut one another some slack. It’s a grace we share with one another. It’s a way to honor one another. And it lays the groundwork to celebrate with one another…so give your spouse a break.
When it comes to resolving marital conflicts, pronouns have superpower. At least that’s what a 2009 study published in Psychology and Aging found. In this study, 154 couples engaged in three 15-minute conversations: one conversation focused on the events they experienced during the day, one focused on a topic of marital conflict, and one focused on a pleasant topic. The main focus of the study was the 15-minute conversation using a topic of marital conflict and what personal pronouns the couple used most often during that conversation. The researchers categorized pronouns into pronouns of togetherness (like “we,” “our,” and “us”) and pronouns of separateness (like “I”, “me,” and “your”). The results? Pronouns emphasizing “togetherness” had a superpower in the conflict conversation. Specifically, couples who used pronouns like “we” “our”, and “us” showed less stress and behaved more positively toward one another than those using “separateness” pronouns. And those using “separateness” pronouns reported being less happy in their marriages.
Of course, thinking in terms of “togetherness” is not the norm in our individualistic society, a society which focuses on “me” and “mine.” So, it may take a little work to set your mind on the “we” of your marriage rather than the “I” of yourself. (You can learn how in The Blessing of the Royal We.) As you learn to think in terms of “togetherness, using especially in the midst of conflict, you will experience less stress in your marriage and a better marital relationship. As a co-author of this study said,” Individuality is a deeply ingrained value in American society, but, at least in the realm of marriage, being part of a ‘we’ is well worth giving up a bit of ‘me.’”
Communication is crucial to a healthy marriage. Everyone knows that, right? We teach couples to communicate—to listen well and take turns explaining their point of view when a conflict arises. All well and good…until you have a real disagreement and give in to the temptation of making your goal to convince your spouse of the superiority of your point of view. With that goal in mind, you practice repeating what your spouse says so they know you “understand” their point of view (at least well enough to blow it out of the water). You “wait” (however impatiently) for your turn to talk. You maintain eye contact and stay calm (most likely with an air of condescension). You word your point of view in a way that your spouse will understand (or are they just stupid?). But something is missing. You never reach resolution. You both grow more frustrated and even angry. Why is it not working? Because you started with the wrong goal and, as a result, you are missing at least three important ingredients.
Humility. Effective communication is undergirded by humble listening. Good listeners humble themselves by setting aside their own agendas and listening to their spouse with the sole purpose of understanding their point of view. They do not have to prove the superiority of their own opinion. They do not listen for flaws in their spouse’s reasoning or ammunition to bolster their own argument. They listen to understand. They listen until they can appreciate their spouse’s perspective based on their knowledge and perception. In humility they acknowledge the sense of their spouse’s perspective. Humility is an essential ingredient for effective communication in marriage.
Respect. Effective communication is premised upon mutual respect. Both spouses respectfully believe the other has a valid viewpoint. They trust their spouse’s intelligence and ability to develop and grow. They respect their spouse’s knowledge and intelligence. They model that respect by listening intently, speaking politely, and disagreeing with love.
Curiosity. Effective communication assumes curiosity. To learn demands curiosity. To learn about your spouse’s perspectives and ideas starts with being curious. Remember, communication is an opportunity to “grow” something new—a new relationship, a new level of intimacy, a new knowledge. “Growing” something new assumes a curiosity about what will grow from this interaction, a curiosity that nurtures the growth of something new. Effective communication means each spouse is more invested in learning about their spouse than in making themselves known. They are more curious to know their spouse than they are demanding to be known.
If you want a really healthy marriage, add these three ingredients into your life and communication. Get curious about your spouse and humbly listen to learn more about them…and do it respectfully. When you do, you’ll discover a greater goal of communication as well. The goal is not to pass on information or convince someone of “my” ideas. The goal is to connect and grow together.
Every couple asks at least two questions of one another. The way in which we answer these two questions will either create a happy, lifetime marriage or a doomed marriage. Here’s the trick though. We ask these questions without ever saying the words. They are silently implied through our actions, interactions, and other questions.
The first question is: “Can I trust you?”
When I ask you to do something, can I trust you to work on it?
When your friends try to influence you to do something, can I trust you to accept my influence above the influence of your friends?
Can I trust you to keep me as a priority above your friends?
When you’re upset with me, can I trust you to still love me?
I know you love your family, but can I trust you to make me the first priority in your life?
When we are apart, can I trust you to remain faithful?
The second question is very similar: “Are you there for me?”
When I am sad or troubled, are you there for me?
When I need help around the house, are you there for me?
When I need someone to listen, are you there for me?
When I want to just have fun with someone I love, are you there for me?
When I need to talk, are you there for me?
Are you there for me emotionally? Physically? Mentally?
The next time you find yourself in an argument with your spouse because the dishwasher was not unloaded, you need to answer your spouse’s unspoken question: “Are you there for me? Will you do your part to help keep our home.”
When you find yourself in a marital a battle over how much time you spend with your friends, you need to answer your spouse’s unspoken question: “Can I trust you? Or do I need to worry about you leaving me for your friends when I need you most?”
When time watching television, playing video games, or exercising becomes a source of conflict, answer the question: “Are you there for me? Or will the attention you give something else take you away from me?”
If you spouse seems to get upset and argue with you every time you talk about a coworker, you might want to answer the unspoken question: “Can I trust you? Do you talk about me with the same enthusiasm and adoration?” The list goes on, but you get the idea. “Can I trust you? Are you there for me?” Make sure the answer is clear.
It’s true. Stress is a killer. Research has found that chronic stress increases depression and anxiety, impacting our mental health. It also impacts physical health, contributing to heart disease, higher cholesterol, a weaker immune system, and gastrointestinal issues.
You know what creates a lot of stress for many people (including me)? Arguments. An Oregon State University study published in 2021 examined the impact of arguments and avoided arguments on a person’s negative emotions. Utilizing data obtained through an in-depth survey of over 2,000 people, they found that on the day of an argument or avoided argument, people who felt their argumentative encounter resolved reported about half as much negative emotion as those who felt the encounter unresolved. Even more, on the day after the argument, those who felt the incident was resolved felt no prolonged negative emotion related to the disagreement.
In other words, resolve the argument and the stress goes away. Resolve the argument before the sun goes down and have no stress related to it the next day.
I don’t know about you, but I have arguments with my spouse now and again. I can also experience disagreements with my daughters. Left unresolved, I ruminate. Stress continues to push cortisol (stress hormones) through my veins. I don’t sleep well. I’m restless. And the next day I’m tired, still feeling the stress of yesterday’s disagreement, and even feeling a little grumpy.
Better to avoid all that and do the work of resolving the argument and any residual anger that accompanies it. This doesn’t mean you have to reach an agreement. It means you have to resolve your anger. How? Start by taking a break and during that break…
Take a deep breath. Let the breath out slowly as you look around the room. Intentionally recognize where you are, what you see, what you hear, what positive memories you have in this place.
Think of the good times you have had with the family member with whom you are having an argument. They are much more than this point of disagreement or moment of anger. Remember what you admire and appreciate about them. Recall times of joy and celebration together.
Agree to meet together to understand one another better after everyone has calmed down. Notice, you are not going to meet to resolve the disagreement, although this is often a byproduct of meeting. Instead, you are going to meet to understand one another better. But first you want all the parties to become calm. When we are upset, we often don’t think rationally. Our fight or flight system gets activated and we only think of survival. Wait until you are calm and your rational, loving brain is back on board. Then you can discuss the disagreement. And, with a calm, clear mind, you can approach the discussion with the intent of understanding your family member’s perspective. The goal is not to prove your point or make them understand you, but for you to intentionally seek to understand their perspective.
Share affection. A hug, a kiss, an “I respect you” or an “I love you” will go a long way in resolving anger among loved ones. Even if you still feel a little agitated…or even a lot agitated…give your family member a genuine hug. After all, deep down you love them in spite of any disagreement. As you share affection, feel the anger dissipate.
These 4 steps take effort. But the effort pays great dividends. Stress is reduced. Anger is resolved. You’ll likely find that the disagreement is even resolved or becomes less significant. Your physical health is nurtured. But best of all, intimacy with your family member deepens. Like I said, it takes effort, but the reward is fabulous.